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Literature, Essay, and Poems
This is all the supplement reading material needed for the course.
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Literature Essays and Poems (LEaP) for AP


Supplemental readings not found in the textbook

Related readings for:


Oedipus and Antigone

The God Who Loves You” by Dennis


Jocasta” by Eisenberg


Jocasta’s Secret by Estep


Antigone’s Flaw by Lines


Enjoying Oedipus - Friedlander

Death of a Salesman

From the Times “Arthur Miller

Intro to Poetry

The Eagle” Tennyson


Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind” Shakespeare


Spring” Shakespeare


Anthem for a Doomed Youth” Owen


The Parable of the Old Man and the Young” Owen


There’s Been a Death, in the Opposite House” Dickinson


Taking Emily Dickinson’s Clothes Off” Collins


Sylvia Plath’s Trauma -  McCormick


Sylvia Plath’s Gangsta Rap Legacy - Richards


Analysis of Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth - Moore


Notes on “Dulce Et Decorum Est


Shell Shock during World War One - Bourke

Ivan Denisovich

Analysis of Denisovich - Salisbury


Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr – biographical material


Solzhenitsyn – Autobiographical material


Essay Topics and Critical Commentary - Schelle


Quotes from Joseph Stalin

Canterbury Tales

A Brief Chronology of Chaucer’s Life and Times


The Murder of Thomas Becket


Chaucer’s Tomb in Westminster Abbey

John Donne

Batter My Heart


Notes from a Small Curate - Davis


Circle of Souls - Cavanaugh


John Donne and His Followers


Donne and Metaphor


John Donne’s Metaphysical Poetry


Poem on the Lisbon Disaster” - Voltaire


Voltaire at Ferney”  -  Auden


Pangloss’ Song” - Wilber


Voltaire: Author and Philosopher


Voltaire Quotes


Araby - Joyce

The Rocking Horse Winner

The Rocking Horse Winner  -  Lawrence

Gulliver’s Travels

Jonathan Swift’s Religious Beliefs


A Brief Biography


Gulliver’s Travels: An Introduction


Swift’s Attitude toward Science and Technology


A Treatise on Good Manners and Breeding - Swift


Swift Quotes


A Modest Proposal - Swift

Brave New World

Dystopia: Categorization


Con: Anti-cloning Reseach


Pro: Cloning Supporters


Aldous Huxley: The Author and his Times


Cockroach” - Sexton


George Orwell Says, “Let the Meaning Choose…


The “Not Me” Myth: Orwell and the Mind - Singer

Invisible Man

The Negro in Hollywood Films - Jerome


Man Underground” - Bellow


The Deep Pit” - Brown


Review of: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man - Howe


The White Man’s Burden” - Kipling


The Brown Man’s Burden” - Labouchere


We Wear the Mask” - Dunbar


King Claudius” – Keeley and Savidis


Dead Letters” - Manley


Elizabethan Tragedy: A Footnote” - Moss


Hamlet’s Cat” - Anonymous


Oor Hamlet” - McNaughtan


Father and Son” – Kunitz


Hamlet” - Vinokurov


He Lugs the Guts into the Other Room” - Taylor


Ophelia” - Rimbaud


The Background” - Friedlander


Tragedy in the Mind of the Infant” - Jones


Embassy of Death” - Knight

Kite Runner

Who Makes These Changes” – Rumi


Sometimes I Forget Completely” – Rumi


Love of a Nation” – Durriani


Bitter Fruit Falling Upon the Earth” - Khalili


Introduction to the Kite Runner- Hosseini


Following Amir” - Khaled


Pulled By the Past” - Kipen


Language and Literature of Afghanistan


Biographical Information on Hosseini


The Land Hazarajat

Romantic Poets

Percy Shelley Biographical Material


Samuel Taylor Coleridge Bio. Material


William Wordsworth Bio. Material


Men, Women, and the Byron-Complex


John Keats: The Nature of His Illness…”


This Living Hand, Now Warm” - Keats


Enjoying ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’”- Friedlander

Wuthering Heights

Rememberance” - Bronte


Emily Bronte Biographical Material


The Magnanimity of Wuthering Heights - Oates


The “Imp of Satan” - Snider


Victorian Suicide - Gates

Victorian Poets

Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff” - Housman


Musee des Beaux Arts” - Auden


Browning’s Portrait of a Ren. Man - Allingham


Apply Modern Critical Theory… - Allingham


Arnold’s “Dover Beach” - Touche


Matthew Arnold Biographical Material


Byzantium in the Imagination… - Haines


The Silent Listener - Everett


Materials on “Musee de Beaux Arts”

Pride and Prejudice

Niceties and Courtesies


The Calling Card


The Fan


Newman on the Gentleman


A Memoir of Jane Austin


Criticisms and Interpretations

Hedda Gabler

What Critics Have Said About… - Meyer


Hedda Gabler: General Information


Ibsen’s Contemporaries Respond


Hedda Gabler: An Introduction


Hedda Gabler as Tragedy


Hedda Gabler: Psychoanalysis


Macbeth’s Soliloquies


            To Strut and Fret Upon the Stage


Freud on the Macbeths


Enjoying Macbeth - Friedlander


The Gunpowder Plot

Modern Poets

Living in Sin” - Rich


Storm Warnings” - Rich


Vacuum” - Nemerov


The Unknown Citizen” - Auden


The Goose Fish” - Nemerov


The Lifeguard” - Dickey


America” - McKay


The Snow Man” - Stevens


Ars Poetica” - MacLeish


Fight First. Then Fiddle.” - Brooks


Africa” - Angelou

The Stranger & No Exit

Woody Allen’s Existentialism




The Myth of Sisyphus


Camus and Sartre - Aronson


Albert Camus Biography


The Jean-Paul Sartre Cookbook - Smith


Existentialism Is a Humanism - Sartre





The God Who Loves You

by Carl Dennis

Carl Dennis



It must be troubling for the god who loves you   

To ponder how much happier you’d be today   

Had you been able to glimpse your many futures.

It must be painful for him to watch you on Friday evenings   

Driving home from the office, content with your week—

Three fine houses sold to deserving families—

Knowing as he does exactly what would have happened   

Had you gone to your second choice for college,   

Knowing the roommate you’d have been allotted   

Whose ardent opinions on painting and music   

Would have kindled in you a lifelong passion.   

A life thirty points above the life you’re living   

On any scale of satisfaction. And every point   

A thorn in the side of the god who loves you.   

You don’t want that, a large-souled man like you

Who tries to withhold from your wife the day’s disappointments   

So she can save her empathy for the children.   

And would you want this god to compare your wife   

With the woman you were destined to meet on the other campus?   

It hurts you to think of him ranking the conversation   

You’d have enjoyed over there higher in insight   

Than the conversation you’re used to.

And think how this loving god would feel   

Knowing that the man next in line for your wife   

Would have pleased her more than you ever will   

Even on your best days, when you really try.   

Can you sleep at night believing a god like that

Is pacing his cloudy bedroom, harassed by alternatives   

You’re spared by ignorance? The difference between what is

And what could have been will remain alive for him   

Even after you cease existing, after you catch a chill   

Running out in the snow for the morning paper,

Losing eleven years that the god who loves you   

Will feel compelled to imagine scene by scene   

Unless you come to the rescue by imagining him   

No wiser than you are, no god at all, only a friend   

No closer than the actual friend you made at college,

The one you haven’t written in months. Sit down tonight   

And write him about the life you can talk about   

With a claim to authority, the life you’ve witnessed,   

Which for all you know is the life you’ve chosen.




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"Jocasta" by Ruth Eisenberg

When she learned the king's power,
Jocasta lost delight in being queen.
Laius was a cold, dry man. Looking at him
brought the image of her baby, his feet
pierced and bound, her baby left to die                          5
in the mountain slope. They would
have no other children.

I remember Laius drunk that night, crying
for Chrysippus, the source of his curse.
Wanting this boy, he took me instead                             10
and threw me on my back to have his way.
I am fifteen and afraid to resist
and tell myself it is my husband's right;
the gods decree a wife obey her spouse.

Sober, Laius recalls Apollo's threat:                                 15
our son will kill him, beget upon me.
Nine months drag like oxen ploughing.
With icy eyes Laius watches me swell.
I fear the gods and beg Hera for a girl,
but as foretold, I give birth to a son.                                                20
Laius takes the child to bind its feet.
The baby cries, and Laius turns away.
He summons a servant and orders me to hand
my baby over, threatening me when I cry.
The king will keep his own hands clean.                         30

At the public altar, Laius
offered ritual bulls and lambs in ritual
slaughter. The everburning fire raged
so the offerings charred, and Jocasta
trembled at the gods' displeasure.                                     35

Upon the gates this dawn, a strange creature
appeared and woke all Thebes. In raucous voice
she cried, "A riddle. Who'll solve my riddle?"
At first our people came to gawk, then marvel.
Some trembled, children hid their heads and cried.      40
I've heard old tales the minstrels sing of her,
but never did expect to really see
a Sphinx - part woman, bird, and lion too...
And what she asks is strange as well: four legs,
then two, then three. What can it be? No one                                45
knows the answer. No one.

The Sphinx brought pestilence and
drought. Rivers and streams and dry, vines
shriveled. But until her riddle was solved,
the creature would not leave. On the gates                     50
she stayed, her destructive song echoing
from empty wells.

My life is a toad. All day and all night
the Sphinx. We cannot escape her song.
Song! More like wail or whine or scream.                       55
Laius is useless as always. Deceitful
man, I hate him, hate his touch.
On the sunswept road to Delphi,
Laius was killed. The servant reporting
the death begged Jocasta to let him tend                        60
flocks in the hills. Sending him on his way,
she shut herself in the palace.

The prophecy was false. How can that be
if the gods control all things? For surely chance
does not...no, no. Yet Laius killed our son                      65
and not the other way. That sin diseased
his soul. I bless the gods that I,
at last, am free.

I dream of my baby night after night.
He is dancing for the gods with bound feet.                   70
I do not understand how he can dance so.
When he jumps, he trips, falling in a heap.
The gods just laugh and turn away to drink.
I sit ravelling knots. The knots become a rope.
I wake shaking and muffle my tears in the sheets.       75

"Man" answered the young stranger
whose red hair caught the sun's rays,
and the riddle was solved. True to her
promise, the Sphinx dashed herself to
death. Thebes was free.                                                      80

Hailing their hero, the people
elected Oedipus king. Gratefully,
he accepted the rule and with it the hand
of Thebes' queen, Jocasta.

I see the young Oedipus in radiant                                   85
sunlight, Apollo blinding me to all
but young and vital strength. Deep in myself
I feel a pulsebeat, something asleep
begins to wake, as though a dormant seed
sends up a shoot, opens a leaf. I love this youth.          90
My sun, I rise to him and with him.

From a land of rock and misery, Thebes
became a bower. Brilliant poppies
dotted the land. The wells filled, crops
flourished, and the flocks grew fat again.                       95

Before the people's eyes, Jocasta
became young. Her dark hair gleamed, her
eye was bright and her laughter cheered
the halls of the palace.

Oedipus has become my Apollo warming                      100
my days and nights. I am eighteen again
with poppies in my hair. I am the poppies,
bright little blooms with milk in them.
Like them, I seem to spring from rocky ground.
Like their color and his hair, our love flames.                105
Sweet Aphrodite, you rush through me, a stream
until you burst like foam that crests the sea.
Your blessing washes what was once a barren
ground. I walk among the roses, feel
your blush upon my cheeks. Oh lovely goddess,           110
I send you swans and doves.

Thebes prospered these years:
the gnarled olive bent lower with fruit.
Lambs frisked in the fields and pipers'
songs rang through the hills. Jocasta had                        115
four children. Psalms of joy were sung
and danced for the gods.

With four children, the hours run away.
Their hunger, games and tears take all my time.
In bed, with Oedipus, I sleep in peace.                            120
He was at first my headstrong bull, but now
he is what a man, a king, should be.
I like to see him walking in the yard,
his funny stiff gait, his hair burnished
by Apollo's brilliant rays.                                                    125

Mine turns grey but he doesn't seem to mind.
Our love has brought to me the joy that I missed
when I was young and thought I'd never know.
At last, I lay to rest my little boy,
his shadow vanished now from all my dreams.            130

Years of plenty at an end, Thebes
was inflicted with drought. The earth
burned as crops withered, cattle and
sheep sickened.

While days were once too short, now each one drags135          
a slow furrow, the earth heavy with heat,
lament and prayer. When I go to the fields
the women clutch my gown and plead my help.
Too many children sicken. The healthy droop.
At home, girls sit listless, my sons tangle                         140
while Oedipus complains that his ankles twinge.
He limps and growls just like a wounded pup.

Jocasta, very grey now, walked
with a more measured step. More than
a loving wife, she was also counselor                              145
to Oedipus.

Blaming himself because the land is parched,
Oedipus frets alarmed he's failed the gods
in some unknown way, searching within himself.
In turn, I pray, lighting fire after fire,                               150
but none burn true. I call on Aphrodite
and offer her doves, but they flap their wings
and peck each others' eyes. When I ask Apollo
to dim his eye, his answer scalds.

No relief at hand, Oedipus sought                                    155
aid from Delphi. The report came back
a confusing riddle about Laius' death.
Suspecting treason, Oedipus feared
conspiracy against his own throne.

Oedipus needs someone to blame. He calls                   160
Creon traitor, Tiresias false seer.
I take him in my arms and stroke his hair.
He tells me what Tiresias has foreseen.
I laugh and tell him I too once believed
that prophesy controlled our lives, that seers                 165
had magic vision the rest of us did not.
I tell the story of Laius, how it
was foretold he would die at his son's hand
and how the baby died when one week old.

As I speak I feel so strange, as though my tale             170
came from another life about someone else.

My words do not comfort, they flame new fears.
He relates what drove him from home, tales that he
would kill his father and bring rank fruit
from his mother's womb. He fears that he has              175
been cursed. Dear gods, how can I comfort him?

From Corinth, a messenger
brought news of Polybus' death,
the king whom Oedipus called father.

You say that Polybus is dead. Dare I                              180
greet death with joy? Can that be blasphemy?
My heart flies into song: His father's dead -
my Oedipus lives safe. His prophesy
is false. Is false as Laius' was. Oh bless
your fate, dear love, you need no longer fear.               185

Corinth wished Oedipus to return
and rule. Fearing he would sleep with
his mother, Oedipus refused. Nothing
to fear, the messenger assured. Merope
was a barren woman.                                                         190

Jocasta began to tremble. Her hands
rose to cover her mouth.

What's this? What's this? What words do I hear?
How can I shut his silly mouth, tell him
Go. Leave. We will not heed your words.                        195
My tongue stops, rooted in my mouth.

I look at Oedipus. He does not see
me watching him. His face is strained, his eyes
are glaring blue. I try to stop the questions.
"Oedipus, I beg you, do not hear this out."                     200

When Oedipus insisted, the
messenger told the story of the king's
infancy, -- how he, a shepherd then,
had helped to save the king's life
when a baby, a baby with bound feet.                            205

Oh God. Oh cold, gold god. Apollo,
you chill me. My mind is ice, and I hear
my mouth say freezing words to Oedipus.
To my husband. My son. "God keep you from
the knowledge of who you are. Unhappy,                      210
Oedipus, my poor, damned Oedipus,
that is all I can call you, and the last thing
I shall ever call you."

Her face ashen, Jocasta rushed
into the palace, her hands showing her                           215
the way to her own quarters. She
ordered the guards to let no one in.
Ignoring all offers of help, she commanded
her women to leave her alone.

I can't believe. I can't believe. Oh God.                           220
He is my son. I've loved my son but not
as mothers should, but in my bed, in me.
All that I loved most, his youth that made
our love the summer sun, wrong, all wrong.
Vile. He caressed me here and here. And I                     225
returned his touch. Odious hands. My flesh
crawls with worms.

My God, we've had four children.

In her chamber, she looked at her
bed, sat on it, then jumped up as though                        230
stung. Covering her eyes with her hands
she shook her head back and forth, again
and again, her body rocking.

Oh, Oedipus, what good was our love if
it comes only to shame? To children whom                   235
all Thebes can curse? Such children, even ours,
are rightly damned.

Although we could not know who we were
and loved in innocence, still we are monsters
in the eyes of god and man. Our names will mean       240
disgrace and guilt forever.

Walking to her dressing table,
she stood before it picking up small
objects: combs, a gold box, a pair of
brooches. Noticing a bracelet given her                           245
by her father when she was a bride,
she let forth a dreadful groan.

Oh Laius, Laius, you brought this one on me.
My fate was sealed my wedding day. Chrysippus
was innocent as I; for you this curse                               250
was uttered, a curse that falls on me. Oh,
that I must bear the shame, that I must be
destroyed by your corruption. And our son,
because you sinned, is ruined, damned.

My marriage day...what choices did I have?                 255
As many as the night you came to me.
The only choice a woman has is that she wed
accepting what the gods and men decree.
It is not just. It can never be right.

Moving decisively, she walked to the                              260
doors and bolted them, straining against
their heavy weight. The women on the other
side called to her, but again she bade them
go away.

Falling on her hands and knees, she pummeled            265
her stomach as though to punish her
womb. As she did, she called her child --
ren's names, one name, Oedipus, again
and again.

I thought him buried, forgotten. But no,                         270
for countless days and nights these many years
he's thrust himself on me instead. My bed
once stained with birthing blood is now forever
stained; what once was love became a rank
corruption.                                                                            275

Rising painfully, sore, she turned
to the small altar in her chamber.
Smashing a jar which held incense, she
began in a voice of char to call on
Apollo and Aphrodite.                                                        280

As she raised her eyes, she raised
her fist and shook it against
the silent air.

Apollo, you blinded me to his scars,
his age, any resemblance to Laius.                                  285
And you, Aphrodite, cruel sister of the sun,
set my woman's body afire, matching my
ripe years and hungers with his youth and strength.
Paralyzing my mind, you inflamed my heart.

The years I prayed to you and praised you                   290
were all charade. You so enjoyed my dance.
We are all fools to trifle with, your joke.

We tremble to question what the future holds.
As though it matters, we think asking will spoil
our luck, but your injustice mocks all hope.                   295

I hear a chant pounding inside my head.
Five babies. Five abominations.
As though a chorus raises call to prayer.
Five babies. Five abominations.

No call to prayer. It is a call to curse                                300
the gods. No longer will I be their fool.

From her robe, she removed her
braided belt. As she looped its strands,
she heard, from the courtyard, a man's
voice scream in anguish. Undeflected, she                     305
tied the necessary knots, slipping the loop
back and forth. Satisfied, she settled
the noose around her neck.

Five babies cursed by heavenly whim,
cursed in their lives without chance or hope.                  310
Mothers ought not love their children so.

Gathering her skirts, she climbed
up on the stool.

And wives be more than merely bedside pawns.
Those who cannot shape their lives are better               315

She stepped onto the air.

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Paulette Estep

Professor Hibbison

English 112


Jocasta’s Secret


“Since it was Jocasta, according to the herdsman in the next scene, who actually gave the baby to him and commanded him to abandon it on the mountainside, does Jocasta kill herself because she can't face Oedipus or because she can't face the public shame of their incest?”


Poor Jocasta’s shame begins the day she must marry Laius, the abductor and molester of Crysippus according to John Porter in Sophocles' Oedipus.  Catherine Avery, editor of the New Century Handbook of Greek Mythology and Legend, maintains that “Laius fell in love with Crysippus, the son of King Pelops, and carried him off to Thebes” where Crysippus mysteriously met his death.  Avery goes on to say that Pelops forgave Laius and restored him to the throne of Thebes.   Laius then marries Jocasta, the daughter of Menoecceus (New 318)


A sorrowful wedding night it must have been for Jocasta, a young Greek adolescent, perhaps no older than fourteen, aware of her husband’s moral crimes towards Crysippus.  Married to a man who was probably twice her age, a grim stage was set. (Cartledge 114).


Jocasta gave birth to a boy; an important addition to the Greek family (Cartledge 144).  An oracle foretold that this boy would kill his father and marry his mother.  Laius made a decision to dispose of the child, which was not unusual in Greek culture.  Newborn babies were presented to their father when they were nine days old so that he could accept the infant into Greek family life or reject it.  Unwanted children were left to die of exposure or were abandoned in a specific location somewhere in the city where they might be adopted and reared as a slave (Peach 52).


Sophocles twists and turns legend and custom as he forces Jocasta into a decisive roll.  Jocasta presented Oedipus to a shepherd to be abandoned on Mount Cithaeron, his feet speared with a skewer and bound (New 387).  Infanticide was an accepted practice, but she would one day face the child that she so cruelly gave over to torture and death, attempting to save the worthless life of Laius.  She sacrificed her child to save the very man that had brought the curse of the Sphinx down upon Thebes because of his “crimes” (New 495).


Later, Laius is murdered on a journey to seek deliverance from the curse of the Sphinx.  Jocasta, barely a widow, imprudently marries a man half her age, whose name means “swollen feet”.  Jocasta, no longer an adolescent, but a mature woman, was well able to understand the consequences of her actions, yet she ignored prophesy of the gods; she superceded what was foretold would come true; incest, an act so heinous even Greek society recoiled from it in Sophocles tale.  The gods gave no anecdote for her dilemma, no panacea was offered to Jocasta that the murderous, incestuous prophesy could be stopped.  Jocasta played a dangerous game, feigning outward devotion to the gods, praying for wisdom and help.  Inwardly she denied their sovereignty and believed that she could somehow change the future. 


Sophocles could have been using Jocasta to illustrate certain social evils and their consequences.  Jocasta morns her lost infant.  She realizes the horror of her imprudent, hasty decision when Oedipus was only three days old (Sophocles 435). Oedipus is outraged to learn of her behavior towards him, yet infanticide was a commonly accepted practice in ancient Greece (Sophocles 444).  Jocasta could have taken her baby and fled from Thebes to save his life.  She possessed a dubious belief in her religion which tossed her around like an ocean wave.  Either she believed that the baby would really do as the gods predicted or perhaps she remembered Laius past crimes and didn’t want his child, using religious and social practices to get rid of Oedipus. 


Jocasta’s behavior exhibits a strange sort of double mindedness. She wove a tangled web which ensnared her hopelessly.  She became the victim of her own self serving and manipulative nature. The pagan gods of ancient Greece were eccentric, Greek mythology reveals this to us.  Their idiosyncrasies appeared to control, unwillingly the lives of their subjects, yet through obedience, faithfulness and verity, Jocasta could have finished her life’s journey with honor. 


We can see the moment of truth coming for Jocasta as she asks about the conflict between Creon and Oedipus (Sophocles 429).  The light of truth is flickering for her and comes to its full, revealing brightness as she begs Oedipus to cease his desperate inquiries.  Feigning religious devotion, Jocasta strives to prove that Oedipus’ fears are unfounded but as he persists, she knows what the awful truth is; she is the one who quickly sent Laius’ servant far away years ago when he returned to Thebes and saw Oedipus on the old kings throne (Sophocles 433). What she thought she could control through murder and deception, she now knows has come to pass (Sophocles 441).  She marries Oedipus to conceal what she did to him as an infant. 


Jocasta’s life became a reflection of Laius’ life.  She married a man half her age and her crimes against her household, and forgotten babe, thrust a curse upon Thebes.  “The foolish woman tears her house down with her own hands” (Prov. 14:1 NASV), Jocasta proved this, having outwardly pretended to revere the gods. Inwardly she tried to thwart them and unwittingly destroyed all that was precious to her. 


No longer able to face Oedipus, the children, her people and her lead role in the terrible prophesy, Jocasta committed suicide, calling out to Laius in agony and dismay as if to say “what have we done?”  If only she could go back to yesterday.  If only she had listened and done things differently.  We can only imagine her horror as her own life’s actions revealed that she precipitated unspeakable scandal and the fulfillment of prophesies.


Works Cited


Cartledge, Paul. The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization.  New York: Atlantic Productions, 2000.


Peach, Susan, Anne Millard. The Greeks. Ed. Janer Chisholm. Tulsa: EDC Publishing, 1990.


The New Century Handbook of Greek Mythology and Legend. Ed. Catherine B. Avery. New York: Appleton Century Crofts, 1972.


Sophocles. “Oedipus Rex”.  In Judith A. Stanford’s, Responding to Literature: Stories, Poems, Plays and Essays. 4th Edition, Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2003


The Ryrie Study Bible. New American Standard Version. Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Th.d., Ph.d. Chicago: The Moody Press, 1978. Proverb 14:1.


Porter, John. “Sophocles’ Oedipus”. University of Saskatchewan. 2004. 4 March 2005. <http://duke.usask.ca/~porterj/CourseNotes/Oed.html>


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Antigone's Flaw

Patricia M. Lines*

[From HUMANITAS, Volume XII, No. 1, 1999 © National Humanities Institute, Washington, DC USA]

Some theorists define politics as who gets what, when and how. Alasdair MacIntyre defines it as "civil war carried on by other means." I prefer a more hopeful definition, and lean toward Michael Oakeshott’s definition as "attending to arrangements." Or, Claes Ryn’s definition—"the peaceful settlement of disputes"—especially since Ryn correlates politics at its best with community. Such an emphasis would require the student of politics to examine not just who gets what, but how individuals arrange things, and how each takes into consideration the others who are trying to do the same.

At the very least, the peaceful conduct of affairs would require some sort of agreement on the rules. To get that agreement without actual violence, participants might still use threats based on superior power (natural or supernatural), although eventually a challenge may require executing the threat. Peaceful arrangements could also depend on deceit, bribes, persuasion and an endless variety of human tricks. The goal is to obtain sufficient agreement among enough of the individuals subject to the arrangements to give the rules stability. This is true even for political regimes based on some principle other than consent of the governed. Failure leads to chaos, rebellion, war or permanent and physical separation of contending factions.

How to attend to these arrangements and rearrangements? One choice is simply to vote, but the time-honored distrust of the tyranny of the majority would require something more. Ideally, the political community follows the advice of the wisest. But who is wisest? Who decides who is wisest? Which decisions the wisest are to decide, which are for individuals, which should be left to habit or custom? The difficulty in answering such questions has led many thinkers to identify deliberation as essential to the political process. Political deliberation requires listening and persuading, engaging and being engaged. Success depends, above all, on compromise. That is, it requires yielding here and there to the opposition, and winning some concession here and there in return.

The greatest obstacle to this kind of deliberation is hubris. It should be no surprise that the first to become aware of politics and identify it as a discipline—the Greeks—were also the first to worry about hubris. As Hannah Arendt reminds us, hubris has a corresponding virtue:

the old virtue of moderation, of keeping within bounds, is indeed one of the political virtues par excellence, just as the political temptation par excellence is indeed hubris (as the Greeks, fully experienced in the potentialities of action, knew so well) and not the will to power, as we are inclined to believe.

Implicit in Arendt’s analysis, and in that of the Greeks, is the notion that politics is the peaceful tending to arrangements. For those who prefer to take a cynical view, the will to power is both the chief political virtue and the chief political vice. Those who take such a view need not worry about the qualities that allow one to engage in deliberation with others. For those who take the view adopted here, there is still much to be learned from the Greeks.

Just as no one among the Greeks stated the case for moderation better than Aristotle, no one stated the case against hubris better than Sophocles. One might object that Sophocles did not have politics in mind, and that he presented only legendary familiar relationships. This would be selling Sophocles short, and it fails to understand how pervasive politics can be. Within the family and the clan much human action may appear to lie outside politics. This is because such communities enjoy close and implicit agreement on basic premises and how they apply to most of the community’s routine. The basic arrangements are often invisible to the outsider. For the most part, tradition and habit prescribe the action the community should take. But even families and clans engage in politics. New circumstances can challenge even the most insular and tradition-bound peoples. External threats may require new or modified arrangements; new decisions must be taken. Factions spring up, discussion takes place, and politics emerges, albeit on a small scale. Even so-called primitive tribes have tribal councils and engage in extended and serious political discourse when faced with a new problem. In larger democratic communities—those harboring individuals who differ in their fundamental approaches to living together—political discourse becomes yet more necessary, as well as more complex and more difficult.

Sophocles, as I have said, was concerned with the political vice of hubris. Oedipus Rex provides the most familiar example. Upon hearing the Delphic prophecy of patricide and incest, the well-intentioned Oedipus took radical steps to thwart fate—fleeing his parents and his home in Corinth. He did well on his own in the world. Strong and cunning, he proved himself many times, most of all when he solved the riddle of the Sphinx and saved Thebes. After Oedipus became King of Thebes, Delphi spoke again, suggesting that the only way to end a severe blight plaguing Thebes was to avenge the murder of the former king, Laius. With god-like certainty Oedipus set out to find the murderer and mete out justice.

The question of who murdered Laius fades to insignificance as Oedipus’s search for truth unearths a history he never suspected, and would never want to know. The audience and all the other characters in the play, even the blind Teiresias, see the appalling truth long before the proud and cunning Oedipus. Creon exclaims, "I can see you are blind to truth." His mother-wife Jocasta cries, "My poor child! Those are the only words I shall ever have for you." No one has mastered dramatic irony better than Sophocles.

Two frightened servants at last yield the pieces of the puzzle to Oedipus. The former Theban king, Laius, and his queen, Jocasta, also hoping to avoid the Delphic prophecy, had abandoned their infant to die. A shepherd had rescued the child and sent him to Corinth. Oedipus killed a stranger on the highway; most likely, this was Laius. Unaware of his kinship, Oedipus claimed the widowed queen, Jocasta, as his wife. Oedipus the King believed that he could simply discover who killed Laius and mete out appropriate justice. Hubris blinds him. When at last he sees the truth, he wishes only to be blind again.

What is Sophocles up to here? An astute and early critic provides clues. According to Aristotle, tragedy requires, among other things, a character whom we admire greatly, but who possesses a flaw—hamartia, or some error in judgment. He falls from happiness into misery as the play progresses through what is sometimes translated as "serious action," action which is complete, noble, and poetical. The total effect invokes dismay and horror. In the end comes the anagnorisis: the recognition or uncovering of the error. In the naive form, a hero or heroine recognizes a person or thing previously mistaken in identity, through some scar or mark or other sign. Iphegenia, for example, recognizes her brother as she is about to sacrifice him to the gods.

In the more profound form of tragedy, the hero recognizes the flaw in himself and faces it. Oedipus Rex inspired Aristotle’s theory of tragedy and exemplifies it perfectly. On seeing the truth, Oedipus gouges out his eyes. The audience participates in the catharsis that follows. The human spirit prevails over the horror, accepts the truth and clings to a more humble bargain with fate. Oedipus gives up his determination to set the world straight and accepts fate, retaining his noble qualities despite the blows of bad fortune. The final irony may be the triumph of Oedipus over fate itself, although not in a way he ever imagined. We see him again, through Sophocles’s eyes, in Oedipus at Colonus where he lives his last years in the company of a loving daughter and dies a good death.

Antigone does not seem to fit the Aristotelian formula. Aristotle himself did not seem to know what to make of it. In the Poetica’s sole reference to the play Aristotle offers Antigone as an example of a poor plot for a tragedy. The least tragic plot, he avers, involves a character who resolves to do a fearful deed and does not do it. His example is Haemon who seems ready to slay his father, Creon, and does not. This may be one of those rare cases where Aristotle misses the point. First, after more than two millennia of experience with drama, one can imagine a situation where delay in doing the dread deed makes the tragedy. Nor is it clear that Haemon had resolved to kill his father; his veiled threat may have been to kill himself, an action which he finally takes. Most important, the conflict between Haemon and his father does not stir our emotions as much as the conflict swirling around Antigone.

The play strikes us as a fine one—Hegel thought it was the supreme example of tragedy, prompting him to pose a different theory for the form. Hegel sees a dialectical clash between two ideals of justice. A noble and wise Antigone fights for the justice of traditional belief, while a tyrannical Creon fights for a right based on might. Irving Babbitt has suggested a more subtle variation of dialectic theory, hailing Antigone as the "perfect example of the ethical imagination" in contrast to her sister, Ismene, who knows merely "the law of the community." Both Antigone and Ismene are ethical, but Ismene lacks ethical imagination. As Babbitt sees it:

This law, the convention of a particular place and time, is always but a very imperfect image, a mere shadow indeed of the unwritten law which being above the ordinary rational level is . . . infinite and incapable of final formulation.

While such interpretations no doubt are true—with each uncovering layers of meaning—alone they reduce Antigone to a morality play. Such interpretations fail to explain the play’s more complex and turbulent moods.

So what drives the dramatic tension in Antigone? Consider the story anew: The two sons of Oedipus had shared the throne, alternating years as ruler. When Eteocles refused to turn over power at the end of his year, Polyneices attacked the city. The brothers died in single combat. Creon, their uncle, now king of Thebes, buried Eteocles with full honors as defender of the city. He left the body of Polyneices to rot, unmourned, outside the gates and decreed death to anyone who would honor the traitor with a burial. In the first lines of the play, Antigone has resolved to defy Creon’s decree. She has invited her sister to join her. Ismene has declined, recalling the family history of tragic defiance of both fate and lawful order. The stage is set.

Alone, Antigone slips out and scatters funeral oil and earth over her brother’s body. Creon discovers the violation of his decree, and carries out its terms with one concession to Antigone’s position as member of the royal family. He does not execute her forthwith, but walls her up in a cave, to let the gods dispose of her as they will.

In minor eddies within the play, the Aristotelian formula applies—especially to Creon, usually judged to be excessively harsh. Possibly, it also applies to Ismene, who may seem excessively timid. Both are noble and both are flawed. Both reach a moment of truth and change course. Ismene wishes to stand by her sister’s side in death. Creon softens his hard rule. But the play is not their story; Sophocles named the work Antigone. Antigone stands noblest and most heroic among all the characters, defiant of man’s rule and insisting on God’s justice. It is to her that we should look for the chief elements of the tragedy. And, if the Aristotelian formula applies, we must search for Antigone’s flaw.

The suggestion that Sophocles intended to present a flawed Antigone rubs against the grain. She is the paragon. The religion of the Greeks, like virtually all religions, required burial of the dead—even the enemy dead. The ancient tales in the Iliad, the bible to the Greeks, warn of the anger of the gods upon a failure to honor the dead. Besides, the restless shades of the unburied could cause trouble. Antigone stands for all that is right and for opposition to tyranny. Thus, we have only a play about Creon’s excessive harshness and his tragically delayed conversion. Yet, Sophocles provides a fair amount of evidence that he intended to create something more complex than a morality play.

Consider first the parallels between Antigone and Oedipus Rex. Both stories begin with a problem facing family and polis, and with the central character resolving to make things right. Antigone proceeds with unswerving resolution in her judgement of the situation. She possesses complete confidence in her ability to choose and execute a just action. She does not see the full situation; she is blind to key elements of the problem. She is like her father in most respects. Both Antigone and Oedipus claim to know justice with the certainty of a god. Oedipus believes most in his cunning and strength, Antigone in her goodness.

The flaw of hubris is easy to spot in Oedipus, but Antigone’s brilliance is so dazzling that we overlook her flaw. After all, she has formulated a great and noble truth and maintains it with courage. She asserts God’s law over man’s law. Especially in our own time, where we formally recognize the superiority, within specified spheres, of individual right over the demands of overly broad laws, Antigone seems a genius beyond her time.

Creon, by contrast, understands the needs of the polis. Following a civil war, he has placed a premium on order. He will do whatever is necessary, including the stern enforcement of harsh rules. He faces another dilemma in his role as leader: he forbade the burial of Polyneices and decreed this harsh punishment before he was aware of Antigone’s guilt. To pardon his future daughter-in-law as his first serious act as ruler of Thebes would compromise all future claims to fairness in his rule. Yet Creon listens to the chorus of old men; he listens to the blind seer. After struggling with the issue, he reconsiders his judgment; he determines to bury the body of Polyneices and to unbury Antigone with his own hands.

Antigone, on the other hand, recognizes the demands of true justice and champions it. She spurns Ismene, who initially hesitated to assist her but soon after wished to share in her sister’s punishment and death. Antigone refuses the offer. When Ismene asks whether her sister has cast her aside, Antigone’s answer ignores Ismene’s change of heart: "Yes. For you chose to live when I chose death." Antigone seems to speak not to spare Ismene, but to wound her to the quick. Antigone leaves Haemon, her betrothed, in the cold, as she left Ismene. She never seeks him out, nor even mentions his name.1 Yet Haemon is ready to defy his father for Antigone’s sake, and he refuses to live without her. Ironically, this may be what he must do to win her affection, for Antigone reveals no tenderness for anyone except those already dead.

Despite the solicitous love of Ismene and the fierce love of Haemon, Antigone complains of being alone and friendless:

I call upon Thebes’ grove in the armored plain, to be my witnesses, how with no friend’s mourning, by what decree I go to the fresh-made prison-tomb.

She compares her fate to Niobe’s—alluding to the stone image weeping on a cliff near Thebes. Significantly, Antigone overlooks the fact that hubris destroyed Niobe. Niobe had boasted that her six (in some versions seven) sons and six (or seven) daughters made her the equal of the goddess Leto, mother of Apollo and Artemis. Apollo and Artemis took offense on hearing of this interesting assertion of quantity over quality. They resolved the issue by killing the hapless children and turning Niobe to stone.

The chorus, often the truth-sayer for Sophocles, provides more clues. Of Antigone, they tell us:

The girl is bitter. She’s her father’s child.
She cannot yield to trouble; nor could he.

In perhaps the most revealing exchange, the chorus turns to Antigone and tells her, plainly:

You showed respect for the dead.
So we for you: but power
is not to be thwarted so.
Your self-sufficiency has brought you down.

The last line is key: "se d autognwtoV wles orga." The above quotation is from Wyckoff’s translation. But all translations seem to head in the same direction: "A self-determined impulse hath undone thee" (Campbell). "You were self-willed. That has been your undoing" (Townsend). "And thee, thy stubborn mood, self-chosen, layeth low" (students of the University of Notre Dame, 1983). In any translation, it seems the chorus has identified Antigone’s flaw. She follows a truth that springs only from her self: It is autognwtoV, or autognotos. She will not consult with others. We could call it self-certainty or, perhaps even better, self-righteousness. It is a form of hubris.

At another point, the chorus tells Antigone she is autonomos. Literally, this means "a law unto yourself." The English word autonomy does not convey quite the right meaning, as individual autonomy was a condition the Greeks viewed with discomfort and suspicion. The autonomous being is either beast or god, living only within the horizons of its own laws. Most English translators of Antigone do not choose to place unfavorable connotations on the word. They tend to choose softer terms to describe the self-certain heroine. The best rendering is probably from Wyckoff, who translates it as "of your own motion you go." Antigone is the lone individual, refusing to sway or be swayed by any in the community. She is autognotos and autonomos. For Antigone, both knowledge and judgment are an individual affair.

Rather than see any flaw or limitation in her own understanding, Antigone only becomes more extreme in her certainty. Those who would make her a saint should reconsider her lack of perspective:

And yet the wise will know my choice was right.
Had I had children or their father dead,
I’d let them moulder. I should not have chosen
in such a case to cross the state’s decree.
What is the law that lies behind these words?
One husband gone, I might have found another,
or a child from a new man in the first child’s place,
but with my parents hid away in death,
no brother, ever, could spring up for me.

Antigone has a single mission which excludes all else. She is also fully self-centered:

Look, leaders of Thebes,
I am the last of your royal line.

These final words deny the existence of the still-living Ismene.

The movement of the drama follows that of Oedipus Rex with respect to most elements of the Aristotelian formulae. It deviates only in the continued blindness of Antigone. The stage shifts to Creon, who also suffers from hubris, or self-certainty, but who sees his error. It is difficult to identify any such clear moment of truth for Antigone. Or perhaps hamartia is not a key element of the Greek tragedy. Aristotle spoke of it only rarely (book 13: 1453a, 10, 16); nor did he emphasize the discovery of the error. On the other hand, the lyrical playwright Maxwell Anderson believes the notion is essentially correct; he believes one can find a recognition scene, if ever so subtle, "in the plays we choose to remember." Perhaps the Aristotelian formula can encompass a shift from one character to another. Or perhaps Antigone’s moment comes in these words as she nears her end:

No marriage-bed, no marriage song for me,
and since no wedding, so no child to rear.

She begins to understand that she has fallen victim to her own hubris. She hints at the possibility that she may be wrong in some way.

One must acknowledge, however, that she dismisses the idea at once. She ends on a harsh and vengeful note:

But if it is the others who are wrong
I wish them no greater punishment than mine.

Our last view of her on stage comes as her guards lead her away. The chorus reminds her of three examples in which those imprisoned within the earth forbeared and ultimately survived their rocky prisons. She will pay no attention to their advice. Neither forbearance nor the ability to take advice is among her virtues.

Sophocles has told the story of both father and daughter, and more than once the chorus compares the two, in particular, their temper, their stubbornness, and their individuality. Both are strong; both self-certain. Both stories construct similar tensions—between rival claims of justice; between individual and familial claims and the needs of the polis; between human striving and human weakness; between human individual conscience and human communal judgment; between seeing and blindness.

Sophocles created works that balance tensions in many dimensions. Each drama is different, of course. The tragedy of Oedipus seems unavoidable. Political deliberation would not have helped him much; the drama serves only to reveal the extent to which hubris can blind one to the truth. Antigone, on the other hand, might have avoided her tragic fate had she paid attention to and entered into discussion with others. To remain tragic, her story depended on a weak and inadequate recognition of her own failing.

While they plainly ask "what is justice?," the tragedies of Sophocles also ask the yet more difficult question, "how do we know it?" If Sophocles is right, there is something to learn from Antigone’s fate. When it comes to seeing the issues surrounding our understanding of justice, Creon may have something to offer after all. He believes justice requires him to give priority to the order of the polis, overruling individual judgments based on conscience. He believes in equal application of the laws, with no exceptions for the royal family. He is at least partly wrong, by the judgment of most. Yet, he is ready to discuss the issue, to listen, to question, to entertain self-doubt. Although he believes that in a time of emergency the order of the polis may require harsh punishment for those who create disturbance, he is willing to reconsider. He listens to the chorus, to Teiresias, to others; and, although he seems adamant at times, he changes his mind. With his own hands he will unearth Antigone and bury the body of Polyneices.

Antigone, on the other hand, has found a higher justice. Most commentators agree that she is right. But she will not discuss her judgment; she remains unyielding. She never doubts the wisdom of her course. She isolates herself. She acts under the illusion that only she is able to grasp the meaning of higher justice. She can only conclude that she does not belong in this world, which so misunderstands the nature of right action.

Antigone’s self-certainty and self-isolation cut short all possibilities for full deliberation. Yet full deliberation was needed to persuade Creon to change his mind. Had Antigone not isolated herself from her sister, Ismene would have stood by her side. Had she sought out Haemon, she would have had another ally. It seems likely that Eurydice, Haemon’s mother and Creon’s wife, would have joined the children’s revolt. She did register her objection to events in the end, through suicide. Had Antigone been ready to engage in politics, Creon would find himself facing the open opposition of all whom he loved. He has the capacity, as we know from his actions in the play, to yield.

Antigone’s belief that she and only she understood justice and how it must apply in the particular situation before her left her with no choice but martyrdom. If she had only some portion of self-doubt, she may have waited just a few moments before her suicide. In that event, Haemon would have rescued her. Had she waited a few moments more, Creon would have done so. A happy ending required her to consider the position of others, to adjust to their views, and to hold her individual judgment of justice with some humility. It required an Antigone who could anticipate the gradual acceptance of her position by those around her. Her self-certainty brought her down.

If all human beings suffer from short-sightedness, there is no certain source for a human grasp of truth. The best humans can do is to share insights in the hope of gaining a larger view of truth. The search for truth requires each

to talk and consult with others, even such as come short . . . in capacity, quickness and penetration; for . . . no one sees all and we generally have different prospects of the same thing according to our different . . . positions to it.2

It is no accident that the author of these words, John Locke, was a leading advocate of government by consent. His remarks formalize the idea that mutual consultation is needed before formulating a vision of justice and choosing the right action for each particular case.

Antigone’s flaw—the flaw of self-certainty—is the chief obstacle to this kind of deliberation. I probably do not need to draw attention to the fact that politics in our time suffers from the same flaw. True believers, religious or secular, seek to replace deliberative politics with eternal principles. Such persons admit of just one right answer. Premises are beyond questioning. Defining political questions as exclusively governed by immutable principles of right eliminates all need for further, often troublesome debate. Only the process of arriving at conclusions—whether the right principle was applied—can be questioned.

It is easy to spot Antigone’s flaw in the character of an antagonist one believes to be dead wrong. The rational mind easily identifies religious fundamentalists as blinded by self-righteousness. This same rational thinker may fail to perceive his own blind spots. Antigone’s flaw has a subtle quality. She has indeed discovered a great truth. We must agree with her. We must admire her. We identify with her.

Her story reminds us, however, of how difficult it is to recognize hubris in our heroes or in ourselves. Upon the discovery of a certain truth, there is a great temptation to believe one has access to all truth. To say it in traditional religious terms, it is a weakness of human beings to believe that, once they have access to one of God’s truths, they know the full mind of God. From here it becomes ever so easy to mistake one’s own will for the will of God.

Most true believers tend to enlarge their premises, leaving little to deduction. If one has determined that a particular action, and only that action, is the right thing to do, there is no choice but to take it, or to enter the realm of the immoral. Action based on such unquestioned belief lies beyond the realm of politics. I once suggested to a participant in what might be described as secular and left-leaning politics that a few leaders from that person’s organization hold a quiet, unpublicized retreat with selected leaders who are religious and right-leaning on an issue of common concern: the public school curriculum. The response was, "Whatever for?!" If I understand Sophocles correctly, such abrupt closing of the opportunity for conversation could lead to a contemporary tragedy.

If an individual as brilliant and noble as Antigone can succumb to hubris, anyone can. Antigone pursued goodness with a singular insight and courage. Discovering a flaw in a near-perfect character suggests a universal human weakness. Antigone’s flaw is a special kind of hubris that afflicts those who possess the greatest insights. Political modesty requires a recognition that one individual or group alone is likely to come up short in the search for truth: "something is left out which should go into the reckoning . . . ." No one knows the whole truth, although each may know a part of it. All human beings are "shortsighted and very often see but one side of a matter . . . . From this defect . . . no man is free. We see but in part and we know but in part, and therefore it is no wonder we conclude not right from our partial views."3 Antigone’s flaw may be the plague of our times.

*Patricia M. Lines, former Director of the Law and Education Center at the Education Commission of the States, is a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute and a Research Associate at the U.S. Department of Education's National Institute of Student Achievement. [Back]

1 There is one line that some translators, such as Townsend, attribute to Antigone that mentions Haemon, perhaps to soften her one-sidedness. Antigone, line 572: "Poor Haemon! See how much your father cares." Wyckoff notes, however, that all extant Greek sources give the line to Ismene. Creon responds to the comment with a reference to "your marriage" which provides some argument for attributing the line to Antigone, but, as Wyckoff points out, Creon’s remark could mean "the marriage of which you speak." Wyckoff ed., 227. [Back]

2 John Locke, Of the Conduct of the Understanding § 3 (iii) .[Back]

3 Of the Conduct of the Understanding § 3 (iii). [Back]

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Enjoying "Oedipus the King", by Sophocles
Ed Friedlander MD

This website collects no information. If you e-mail me, neither your e-mail address nor any other information will ever be passed on to any third party, unless required by law. I have no sponsors and do not host paid advertisements. All external links are provided freely to sites that I believe my visitors will find helpful. This page was last modified April 1, 2010.

If you are a student assigned to read "Oedipus the King", and perhaps also to comment on Aristotle's ideas about tragedy and "tragic flaws", this site will help you get started.

Warning: This is NOT a "family" site, and Sophocles is NOT "family entertainment".

"Oedipus the King" is a monument to Sophocles's dramatic genius, and to the freedom of Athenian thought. It develops a shocking, profoundly immoral idea about a human being's ultimate relationship to the universe.

Thankfully, there is no reason to think that Sophocles's idea is true, or that Sophocles really believed it.

Commentators on Sophocles, beginning with Aristotle, have tried to cover over the obvious. This explains the nonsense about "tragic flaws" and "hybris".

If you want something nice, please leave now.

What's here?

1. The Folk Tale
2. Predestination
3. Sophocles
4. Aristotle
5. Today

1. The Folk Tale

We don't know whether there was a historical Oedipus. "Oedipus" means "swollen feet". The Greeks pronounced it "oy-DEEP-us". Oed- is the same root as "oedema / edema" (tissue swelling; the British preserve the initial "o"), while "-pus" is feet (hence "octopus", the eight-footed animal.)

Laius and Jocasta were king and queen of Thebes, a town in Greece. One day, they had a baby boy. An oracle prophesied that the boy would grow up and kill his father and marry his mother. To thwart the prophecy, Laius and Jocasta decided to kill their baby. In those days, it was usual to leave an unwanted or defective baby in the wilderness. Laius and Jocasta did this. To be extra-sure, they pierced his little feet and tied them together. (Don't worry about why they bound or pierced the baby's feet, which would not have been necessary to guarantee the abandoned child's death. It may have been introduced to explain the hero's name. It also helps later to confirm Oedipus's true identity.)

A kindly shepherd found the baby. He gave the baby to a friend, who took it to Corinth, another town. (Corinth reappears in the New Testament.) The king and queen of Corinth couldn't have a baby of their own. So they adopted the foundling.

Nobody ever told little Oedipus that his mother was never pregnant. One day, after he had grown up, a drunk mentioned his being adopted. Oedipus questioned his parents, but they denied it. Oedipus visited various oracles to find out whether he was really adopted. All the oracles told him instead that he would kill his father and marry his mother. (None of this makes much sense. Again, don't worry about it. This is a folk tale.)

To thwart the oracles, Oedipus left Corinth permanently. (Again, don't worry. Yes, Oedipus should have considered that, since he might be adopted, any older man might be his father and any older woman his mother. But this is a folk tale.)

Travelling the roads, Oedipus got into a traffic squabble and killed a stranger who (unknown to him) was King Laius. In one version, there was a dispute over right-of-way on a bridge. In those days, high rank got to go first, Oedipus identified himself as heir to the throne of Corinth, and for some reason (again, don't worry about it) Laius's people simply attacked instead of explaining that he was king of Thebes. Some versions say that the rude Laius drove over Oedipus's sore foot, making him lose his temper.

Soon Oedipus's smarts saved the town of Thebes, and he was made king. (In a folk-tale within a folk-tale, Oedipus solved the Riddle of the Sphinx. "What animal has four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening?" Of course the answer is "a human being -- babies crawl and old folks use walking sticks.") Oedipus married Laius's widow, Queen Jocasta. He ruled well, and they had four children.

Eventually, Oedipus and Jocasta found out what had really happened. (You must assume that accidentally killing your father and marrying your mother is a disaster.) Jocasta committed suicide, and Oedipus blinded himself and became a wandering beggar.

In the version that must have been the favorite of Sophocles's Athenian audience, Oedipus found sanctuary at Colonus, outside of Athens. The kindness he was shown at the end made the city itself blessed.

The moral of the folk tale? Even if you try to thwart your destiny, you won't succeed!

In Iliad XXIII, we read about one Mecisteus, who "went once to Thebes after the fall of Oedipus, to attend his funeral, and he beat all the people of Cadmus", evidently at boxing (funeral games) which is the subject of the passage. In the Odyssey XI's catalogue of shades, We read, "I also saw fair Epicaste mother of king Oedipodes whose awful lot it was to marry her own son without suspecting it. He married her after having killed his father, but the gods proclaimed the whole story to the world; whereon he remained king of Thebes, in great grief for the spite the gods had borne him; but Epicaste went to the house of the mighty jailor Hades, having hanged herself for grief, and the avenging spirits haunted him as for an outraged mother -- to his ruing bitterly thereafter." That's what Homer has to say about Oedipus. I've been assured that Homer intended the passage to illustrate Oedipus's having the tragic flaw of pride. I can't see what kind of sense this makes.

A NYU student found a personal meaning:

What is the moral of this story? Don't go to a fortune teller! Let life take its course. Your fate is already written and sealed. If you know all there is to know about your life, then why bother living? You'll spend the rest of your life worrying about what's to come. Embrace life and its surprises.

Oedipus Wrecked -- humor. Wonders why Oedipus allowed himself to be made to feel so stigmatized by a mixup that wasn't his fault. "Moral of the story: Being a victim of gurus, society, and circumstances does not relieve one of the responsibility of thinking for themselves. It does make for a tragic hero, however."

Sphinxes -- and a lot on the background of the story. The author is with me on the "hamartia" business, below. Thanks for the sphinx.

2. Predestination

Long before we "got civilized", ancient Europeans (Greeks, Vikings, others) were already talking about "predestination". If something was going to happen, it would happen and there was nothing you could do about it.

Why would anybody talk like this?

1. Ancient people may have been impressed (or wanted to be impressed) by the fulfillment of prophecies. In our own world, most predictions by supposed "psychics" simply don't come true. But people want to believe in the supernatural, and people like to tell each other about the rare occasions when something happens that a psychic said would happen. So money-making "psychics" make lots of predictions and keep them vague.

People have such a strong desire to believe in the power of supernatural prediction that they even invent stories of psychic predictions being fulfilled. The most famous example (Nostradamus and the gray monk in Varennes woods) continues to be told, even though the tale of Louis XVI being disguised as a monk when he was captured there is just a lie.

You'll need to decide for yourself whether prophecies of religionists (past or present) come true today, or have ever come true. Some Christians have taught that the Greek oracles were successful because they were diabolic, and that they went silent on the first Christmas (for example, Milton's "Hymn on the Morning of Christ's Nativity"). People want to believe in oracles.

2. Believing in predestination frees people from worry. Talking about unalterable destiny is extremely popular among soldiers going into battle -- a powerful antidote to obessive fear that would slow or distract a warrior. Soldiers tell each other, "If the bullet has your name on it, you will die." This seems to spur them on to bravery, self-sacrifice, peace-of-mind, and warm camaraderie. Talk about "fate", "predestination", and so forth has found its way into warriors' tales across many cultures. In the Iliad, even Zeus (? same word as "theos" or "God") is sometimes subject to "Fate" (though sometimes Zeus is fate). We also see this in peacetime, whenever people face frightful conflict.

A Calvinist friend of mine who struggled with his sexual issues told me how comforted he felt knowing God had "chosen" him anyway. For some reason that I do not understand, he could believe in this. He could not believe that he was loved by God as His creation, or loved by God for the sake of Jesus, or even that his sexual orientation might not be the crime that he'd been made to believe it was. Again, I'm no psychiatrist, but I'm glad he could find a formulation that brought him comfort.

Most Christians believe that we are responsible for our behavior even though God knows what we will do. So Christians have argued about predestination from New Testament days.

Luke says that the people who chose Christ were predestined to do so. Dante asks the blessed souls in heaven about predestination, and is told they don't know the answer, either. Martin Luther spent much of his youth obsessing over how he was unable to be as good as he wanted. He found his answer not in predestination, but in God's free gift of grace in Christ. For him, this was a comfort and assurance. "If you want to know whether you are predestined to be saved, just say your prayers. Then you will know you are predestined for salvation." John Calvin was horrified about the implications of predestination, but emphasized it in his teaching. Other preachers like Jonathan "Spiders" Edwards and the Wesleys taught that Christ had died for everybody and that everybody had a free choice. Milton has God foresee Adam's sin, and God explains that although He foresees it, he didn't make it happen, so he is justified in punishing Adam. Racine's "Phaedra" marked a return to themes of Greek tragedy and people being the victims of cruel destiny. Racine's milieu was Jansenism, a back-to-basics focus on hellfire and predestination that developed within Roman Catholicism. Boswell, who wrote the biography of Samuel Johnson, obsessed about predestination and became profoundly depressed thinking he could end up damned eternally. He's not the only person who's had this experience. In the US, the "Free Will Baptist" denomination emphasized evangelization and need to work hard to bring others to Christ, against those who thought that God's predestination made this unnecessary.

Some Hindus and Buddhists have taught that a person's behavior in a past life predestines happiness or misery in the current one, by the laws of karma. Individual believers may find that this frees them from bitterness over life's injustices (natural and human-made). You'll need to decide for yourself whether this is good or bad. Belief in karma has awakened social conscience and kindness to strangers in those who believe that "what goes around comes around."

The theme of predestination continues in secular literature. Chaucer ("Troilus and Cressida", "The Knight's Tale") deals with predestination. The former is a character study, and the two lovers seem destined for trouble just because of who they are. Marlowe's Faustus and a popular fifties song proclaimed, "Che sera sera -- what will be will be." Ambiguous -- do we make our own decisions or not? Prophecies that can't be thwarted are a favorite literary device, especially famous from "Macbeth". Ideas about predestination are parodied in "Tristram Shandy" -- the baby is predestined to have a small nose and an ugly name despite the conscious efforts of the parents to avoid these supposed disasters. Today, fulfilled prophecies are a staple of fiction. Although the vast majority of psychic predictions in the real world are failures, they come true as plot devices on the Silver Screen.

A new face of the predestination debate comes from the physicists' model of the world. At least in Newtonian physics, if you know everything about a closed system at one moment of time, you can predict everything that will happen in the future. If our world is really like this, then physical laws predetermine what will happen in our brains, and what we will think and do. The laws of physics (ultimately) even determine our decisions about which side to take in a college bull session about "predestination versus free will."

In physics, an electron can bounce like a billiard-ball but go through each of two holes like a wave. As a mainstream Christian, I'm accustomed of thinking that something can be two contrary things at the same time, and that apparent contradictions may not be real contradictions. The Good Lord feeds the birds, but I know how birds really get their food. I give thanks to the Good Lord for the birth of a child, but nobody requests equal time for "stork science". I know how I get sick and how I recover, and thank the Good Lord for my recovery. The bread and wine are Christ's body and blood -- I don't know how. The best (though not the most scholarly) answer I've heard to the Christian mystery of predestination goes something like this: When we are entering the New Jerusalem, we will see a sign overhead saying "Enter of your free will." When we are inside, and look back, the reverse of the sign will say "God chose us from before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4)".

The folk tale of Oedipus has a popular theme -- predestination.

Sigmund Freud and the "Oedipus complex" aren't the subject of this site. Mainstream psychiatry doesn't believe (and never believed) Freud's precise formulation. Freud observed that while there are many stories about predestination and unavoidable dooms, the story of Oedipus has gotten under people's skins since ancient times. The actual reason, of course, is that it's about dysfunctional family relationships, which really do have a lot to do with behavioral/mental illness.

Oedipus -- the legend, from Wikipedia. Tells about modern versions, including some modern ribaldry.

3. Sophocles

Sophocles wrote "Oedipus the King" for the annual festival where playwrights competed for prizes. It was a major civic occasion, with attendance expected.

Sophocles the writer is phenomenally good, especially considering his era. His writing is tight, with each phrase contributing to the whole. He is full of succinct observations on life. And despite the limits of the form, he often manages to make his characters seem like real individuals.

The title of our play is often given in its Latin translation "Oedipus Rex", rather than in its original Greek ("Oedipus Tyranneus"), since the Greek term for king is the English "tyrant" which means a monarch who rules without the consent of the people.

As the play opens, the priest of Zeus and a bunch of non-speaking characters (old people, children) appear before King Oedipus with tree-branches wrapped with wool. It was evidently the custom to do this in front of a god's altar when you wanted something urgently.

Oedipus greets them as a caring, compassionate leader. The priest explains (really for the audience's benefit) that Thebes is suffering from a plague. Plants, animals, and people are all dying. The people know Oedipus is not a god, but they believe that some god inspired him to solve the riddle of the sphinx and save the town. And since Oedipus has been king, he has done a splendid job. So now people look to him to find a cure for the plague.

Oedipus explains (really for the audience's benefit) that he has sent Creon (Jocasta's brother) to the oracle of the god Apollo at Delphi to get an answer. He's late returning, but as soon as he gets back, Oedipus promises to do whatever the oracle says.

Just then, Creon arrives. Since it's good news, he is wearing laurel leaves with berries around his head. Creon says, "All's well that ends well." (I'm told that the Greeks loved irony.) Apollo said that the killer of Laius must be found and banished, and the plague will end. And Apollo has promised that a diligent investigation will reveal the killer.

Oedipus asks to review the facts. All that is known is that Laius left for Delphi and never returned. (Don't ask what Oedipus did with the bodies of Laius and his crew.) There was no immediate investigation, because of the sphinx problem. One of Laius's men escaped, and walked back to Thebes. (Don't ask what Oedipus did with Laius's horses and chariot.) By the time he got back, Oedipus was being hailed as king. The witness said Laius was killed by a gang of robbers. (We can already figure out why the witness lied. And we'll learn later that he asked immediately to be transferred away from Thebes, and has been gone ever since.)

Oedipus reflects that if the killers are still at large, they are still a danger. He decides to issue a policy statement to help find the killer.

The chorus, in a song, calls on the various gods (including Triple Artemis, in her aspects as huntress, moon-goddess, and goddess of dark sorcery), to save them from the plague and from the evil god Ares, who is ordinarily the god of war but is here the god of general mass death.

Oedipus issues a policy statement, that whoever comes forward with information about the murder of Laius will be rewarded, and that if the killer himself confesses, he will not be punished beyond having to leave the city permanently. On the other hand, if anyone conceals the killer, Oedipus says he will be cursed. Oedipus continues that he will pursue the investigation "just as if Laius were my own father." (Irony.)

The Chorus says that Apollo ought to come right out and say who the murderer is. (The Chorus's job is to say what ordinary people think.) Oedipus says, "Nobody can make the gods do what they don't want to." The chorus suggests bringing in the blind psychic, Teiresias. Especially, they hope he can find the missing witness to the killing. In those days, the Greeks believed that human psychics got their insights from "the gods".

There are other stories about Teiresias. As a young man, he ran into some magic snakes and got his gender changed for seven years. This enabled him to tell whether the male or the female enjoys sex more. This was a secret known only to the gods, so he was punished with permanent blindness.

Teiresias comes in. Oedipus asks his help finding the killers, ending up by saying, "The greatest thing you can do with your life is to use all your special talents to help others unselfishly."

Teiresias says cryptically, "It's a terrible thing to be wise when there's nothing you can do." (As A.A. Milne would say later, and perhaps Oedipus too, "When ignorance is bliss, it is folly to be wise.")

Teiresias says, "I want to go home." Oedipus calls him unpatriotic. Teiresias says, "Your words are wide of the mark (hamartia)". Our expression in English is "You're missing the point". (Originally an archery target was a point.) We'll hear about hamartia again.

Teiresias continues to stonewall, and Oedipus gets very angry. Finally Teiresias gives in, says Oedipus is the killer, and adds that he is "living in shame with his closest relative."

Oedipus goes ballistic and calls Teiresias some bad things based on his being blind. (Irony.) Teiresias says, "You'll see soon." Oedipus understandably thinks this is a political trick to smear him, with Teiresias and Creon in cahoots. Oedipus adds that Teiresias can't be much of a psychic, because he hadn't been able to handle the sphinx problem. The Chorus tells both men to cool down. Teiresias leaves, predicting disaster. Soon Oedipus will learn the truth and be a blind exile, leaning on his staff.

The Chorus sings about the oracle at Delphi, which was supposedly the center of the world. "Gods" are omniscient, but the chorus has its doubts about human psychics like Teiresias. Especially, they cannot believe Oedipus is a killer.

Creon comes in, incensed that Oedipus would accuse him of trying to smear him. The Chorus says Oedipus is simply angry. Creon says he must be nuts. The Chorus says that to the king's faults and misbehavior, they are blind. ("See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" -- the norm in a non-democracy.) Oedipus comes in and accuses Creon directly of planning a coup, using a smear by a crooked psychic as an excuse. They exchange angry words. Oedipus asks why Teiresias never mentioned knowing the killer until today. Creon can't explain this. He defends himself from the accusation of planning a coup. (1) Being king is too much trouble. (2) Creon has other worthwhile things to do. (3) Creon has everything he needs. (4) Creon has political influence anyway. (5) Creon is well-liked and isn't going to do an obvious wrong. "You build a good reputation over a lifetime. A single bad action ruins it." Irony.

Oedipus isn't satisfied. He says he wants Creon executed for treason. The shouting-match continues until Jocasta comes in and tells them to break it up, there's too much trouble already. The Chorus says it agrees, and tells Jocasta that both men are at fault.

Creon leaves, and Jocasta asks what's happened. The Chorus talks about what a fine king Oedipus has been, and says, "Let's forget the whole business with Teiresias's prophecy." The Chorus uses a variant of the proverb, "Let sleeping dogs lie." It's better not to ask about things that can make trouble. Irony.

Oedipus talks about it anyway. Jocasta says, "Well, I don't believe in psychics. I'll prove it. Laius and I were told that our baby would kill him and marry me. But this never happened, because we left the baby to die in the woods. And the witness said that Laius was killed at that place where three roads meet by robbers."

"Uh-oh", says Oedipus. "Which three roads?" Irony.

Jocasta says, "It's where the roads from Thebes, Delphi, and Daulis meet. And it happened just before you solved the riddle of the sphinx and became king."

Oedipus is upset. He asks Zeus (chief god), "What are you doing to me?" He asks Jocasta for a description. Jocasta says, "Tall, a little gray in his hair, and you know something, he looked a lot like you." Irony.

Oedipus continues his questioning. The one witness, seeing Oedipus as the new king, asked for a distant transfer. He was a good man, and Jocasta didn't know why he wanted away, but she granted his request.

Oedipus tells his story. He was going to the oracles to find out whether he was adopted. All of them told him simply that he would kill his father and marry his mother. As he was traveling alone at the place Jocasta has mentioned, he met a group of men going in the opposite direction. The men, including the leader, started insulting him. Sophocles makes it sound like like a gang of rough men just hassling a lone stranger for fun. One of the men shoved Oedipus. Oedipus punched him back. The leader struck Oedipus treacherously on the back of the head with the horse staff, Oedipus turned and hit the leader in the chest with his own staff, knocking him out of the chariot. Then Oedipus managed to kill them all except for the one who ran away.

It was justifiable, self-defense. But Oedipus is devastated. He says he must be the killer of Laius, and he is ashamed that he has been having sex with his victim's wife. Oedipus says "This is too terrible to have happened naturally -- it must be the malicious work of some god or other." He says he will simply leave the city, now, and let the plague end. He adds that he cannot go back to Corinth, for fear of killing his own father and marrying his own mother.

The Chorus is deeply sympathetic to Oedipus, and appreciative of his willingness to go voluntarily into exile to save the city. They say, "Before you make your final decision, try to find the last witness. Maybe he will exonerate you." And Oedipus notes, "The witness did say it was robbers, plural."

Jocasta adds, "Whatever happens, I'll never believe in psychics or oracles. Laius was prophesied to die by the hand of his own child."

The Chorus sings a puzzling song about how (1) we have to obey the gods; (2) the gods's best gift is good government; (3) if the government is bad, there is no reason to be good; (4) nobody believes in oracles any more.

Jocasta comes in, having visited the local shrines and left little offerings, and asks people to join her in praying for the distraught Oedipus. He's our leader, and we need him now. She prays to Apollo to make this disastrous situation better. Irony.

Just then, a messenger comes in from Corinth. He says "Lucky Jocasta, you lucky wife!" (Actually, "Blessed is your marriage bed!" Irony.) The king of Corinth has died, and the Corinthians have chosen Oedipus to be their new king. (Greek city-states were often elective monarchies.) Jocasta says, "Great news. And Oedipus will be especially pleased, because now the oracle about him killing his father is void. You see, I was right not to believe in oracles." Irony.

Oedipus comes in, hears the news, and says, "Maybe the oracle has been fulfilled figuratively; perhaps he died of grief for my absence. But I'm still worried about marrying my mother." Jocasta says, "Forget it. Life is governed by chance, not destiny. Maybe you'll dream about marrying your mother. You should ignore dreams." Oedipus is still worried. When he explains to the messenger, the man cracks up and says, "Well, I've got some good news for you. You don't have to worry about marrying the lady you've called mother... because you're adopted!"

All hell breaks loose. Oedipus questions the messenger, and learns the messenger had been herding sheep, had met a shepherd who had found Oedipus, had taken the baby, had taken the pin out of his ankles, and had given him to the king and queen of Corinth to raise as their own. Oedipus is starting to wonder about what has always been wrong with his feet.

Oedipus says, "It's time to clear this up. Send for the other shepherd." Jocasta realizes exactly what has happened. Jocasta begs Oedipus NOT to pursue the matter. Oedipus says he has to know. (If Oedipus wasn't so intent on getting to the truth, there'd be no play.) Jocasta runs out horribly upset. Oedipus is a little slower, and thinks, "Perhaps she's upset to find out I'm not really of royal blood. But what the heck -- I'm 'Destiny's child' -- and that's something to be proud of! I'm me." Irony.

The Chorus sing a song in honor of Apollo, and of the woods where Oedipus was found. The say the spot will become famous. Perhaps Oedipus is the child of nymphs and satyrs. Irony.

The other shepherd is brought in. He already has figured things out, and pretends he doesn't remember. Then he begs the other messenger to be quiet. But Oedipus insists on the truth. It comes out. Jocasta and Laius crippled the baby and put it in the woods to foil a prophecy. Oedipus had, indeed, always wondered what was wrong with his feet. Now everybody knows the truth. Oedipus rushes out.

The Chorus sings a song about how transient happiness is, what a splendid king Oedipus has been, and how Oedipus is now the victim of destiny.

The next scene is an extremely graphic account, by an eyewitness. Jocasta ran into the bedroom, screaming. She locked the door from inside. A few minutes later, Oedipus came in, and broke down the door with what seemed to be supernatural strength. He found Jocasta dead, hanging. Oedipus took the body down, then removed the pin that held up her dress. He stabbed it again and again into his eyes, saying he has looked at his mother's naked body when he shouldn't, and he has learned what he now wishes he hadn't. The blood didn't merely dribble, as after a single needlestick. It gushed on both sides. For this to happen, the choroidal artery that enters the eye from behind must be severed. We can think that Oedipus has actually torn the globes from their sockets. Oedipus now begs to be taken out of the city (so that the plague will end), but he has no strength and no guide.

Oedipus comes in. Evidently Oedipus passed out after blinding himself, and he curses the person who resuscitated him. The Chorus asks, "How were you able to rip out your eyeballs?" Oedipus replies, "Apollo gave me the strength to do it."

Creon is the new king. He is not angry, merely kind. He helps Oedipus up and out of the city, guided by his two daughters. Staff in hand, Oedipus himself is the answer to the riddle of the sphinx. Oedipus says that some incredible destiny must surely await him. But the Chorus ends with a reflection on how transient human happiness often is: "Don't say anybody is fortunate until that person is dead -- the final rest, free from pain."

What is Sophocles saying?

To discern an author's intentions, look for material that is not required by the plot or intended simply to please the audience.

In retelling the story of Oedipus, Sophocles goes beyond mere irony.

  • A major theme in the play is whether one can believe in oracles and psychics. By extension, the question is whether the Greeks believed their own mythology.
  • Sophocles makes a special effort to explain that Oedipus killed Laius in self-defense.
  • More generally, Sophocles goes out of his way to present Oedipus as an extremely capable, beloved administrator. Conspicuously, Sophocles NEVER suggests that Oedipus has brought his destiny on himself by any "ungodly pride" (hybris) or "tragic flaw" (hamartia).
  • The last lines seem ambiguous. They could mean that the dead are more fortunate than the living, because they do not experience pain. Is life really that bad?
  • "The gods" made the prophecies that led Oedipus into disaster. The sphinx appeared (she must have been sent by the gods), and Oedipus solved her riddle (the chorus says he must have been guided by the gods.) Teiresias could not solve the riddle, or detect the killer -- thanks to "the gods". At the beginning, Apollo's oracle simply says, "Find the killer" -- leading to the cruel ironies of the play. Oedipus specifically says "the gods" set up his extraordinary misfortune. And at the end, Apollo merely gives Oedipus the strength to carve his own eyes out of their sockets.
  • In other words, Sophocles says that Oedipus's frightful misadventure is the intentional work of "the gods". At the end, everybody says this. Pure and simple. Nobody even asks why.

The Golden Age of Athens was a time for thinkers, scientists, inventors, and for people to share ideas freely. Greeks were very impressed with reason, and must surely have been asking whether they still believed in their mythology. "Social conservatives" prosecuted Socrates for expressing doubts about "the gods", but only because they thought this would corrupt the minds of young people. (Does this sound familiar?)

People have often noted that comedy and melodrama have arisen independently in many cultures, but that tragedy has its unique beginnings in Athens's golden age -- the first time that we hear people asking the tough questions about what they really believed.

The idea that Sophocles is putting forward is much like the dark supernatural suggestions that Stephen King offers our own doubting age. Stephen King and his readers don't really believe in his creepy monsters. And I don't know whether Sophocles really believed the message of "Oedipus the King".

Sophocles is saying, "Maybe the gods do exist... and are consciously and elaborately MALICIOUS. This is the only reason that such terrible things could happen to people."

Oedipus the King, with lines numbered
Oedipus the Wreck -- modern site for students
Ablemedia -- study questions
Temple U Notes. Notably, nothing on "tragic flaws."

4. Aristotle

Aristotle's Poetics are lecture notes on poetry, with a focus on tragedy. Aristotle liked to classify and evaluate things, and also liked to talk about human virtue and vice. Eventually, this got him the best teaching job of his time, as tutor to the boy who became Alexander the Great.

Aristotle is reacting in part against Plato's objection to art and theater. Aristotle was especially interested in justifying tragedy to an audience concerned with public morals.

I am quoting below from the translation of the Poetics by S.H. Barber.

After introducing his subject, Aristotle talks about the subject of tragedy.

Since the objects of imitation are men in action, and these men must be either of a higher or a lower type (for moral character mainly answers to these divisions, goodness and badness being the distinguishing marks of moral differences), it follows that we must represent men either as better than in real life, or as worse, or as they are. It is the same in painting. Polygnotus depicted men as nobler than they are, Pauson as less noble, Dionysius drew them true to life. -- II

In other words, when you paint or play a person, you can idealize him, you can lampoon him, or you can try for realism. Aristotle continues...

The same distinction marks off Tragedy from Comedy; for Comedy aims at representing men as worse, Tragedy as better than in actual life. -- II

Aristotle means both better-spoken and of better moral character. Aristotle goes on to explain why people make poetry in the first place. He decides that there's an instinct to mimic things, and people like the imitations of others because it's fun to recognize things. He continues...

Poetry now diverged in two directions, according to the individual character of the writers. The graver spirits imitated noble actions, and the actions of good men. The more trivial sort imitated the actions of meaner persons, at first composing satires, as the former did hymns to the gods and the praises of famous men. -- IV

Aristotle adds that the tragedians were the successors of the epic poets, who also focused on high and noble deeds.

Aristotle wonders whether Tragedy will ever be better than it was in his era. He tells about its origins in improvisation, and its recent history.

Aeschylus first introduced a second actor; he diminished the importance of the Chorus, and assigned the leading part to the dialogue. Sophocles raised the number of actors to three, and added scene-painting. -- IV

Originally, tragedies were songs sung by a chorus. Then one member would take the role of a character. Aeschylus added a second speaking part apart from the chorus. Sophocles added a third, and introduced stage scenery.

Now Aristotle moves into the famous definition of tragedy.

Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions. -- VI

Tragedy must be a unified story, about something important. Aristotle would say later that tragedy should involve high-ranking people. He doesn't give any reason that makes sense. Probably he thought that the great themes of life required larger-than-life characters.

Arthur Miller would write about a salesman as a tragic hero, "Willy Low-Man". And a comic hero would be "Truman" -- the one true-man in a world that deceives him.

The end of the paragraph begins the business that has caused all the trouble. "Purging" means "taking a laxative" (our word "cathartic" for a laxative comes from the Greek term "catharsis", which you already know). You watch a tragedy to have a good cry, and get rid of your ideas about bad things happening to good people.

Every Tragedy, therefore, must have six parts, which parts determine its quality- namely, Plot, Character, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, Song. -- VI

Aristotle goes on to explain what these are.

  • Plot: the story; the good ones focus on a single episode.
  • Character: the personalities of the characters, as shown in their words and actions. (Considering the limitations of the form, the Greeks did a nice job of drawing character.)
  • Diction: the right choice of words. Aristotle points out how effective using just the right word can be.
  • Thought: Arguments and exposition. Aristotle compares it to rhetoric.
  • Spectacle: as we'd say, "special effects". Not so much the poet's business as the stage-specialist's.
  • Song: words joined to music.

What is missing? Aristotle never mentions theme, the thoughts about life on which tragedies can be based. Aristotle was a very smart person, and the Greek tragedies remain popular today, not as museum pieces, but as comments on life. Yet Aristotle is silent on this important element of tragedy.

As you continue to study literature, you'll constantly look for themes. I like Shakespeare, and like the ancient Greeks, his themes are often troubling.

Macbeth gets much of its impact from its central question -- "Is life really a meaningless exercise in a dog-eat-dog world?"

Hamlet focuses on the phoniness and meanness of human society. Hamlet starts by wishing he was dead. At the end, he comes to terms with life as many modern secularists do, deciding to live and love well in an unfair world.

The themes of Romeo and Juliet were radical in Shakespeare's time. Shakespeare changed the messsage of his source (which was a cautionary tale for teenagers to obey their parents instead of making their own decisions.) Young people should be allowed to choose their own husbands and wives. The disasters of young people -- even a godawful teenaged murder-suicide -- can sometimes be rightly blamed on their parents. And love gives happiness and dignity even in the worst circumstances.

Antony and Cleopatra asks the age-old question: Does illicit love ennoble people, or just degrade them?

King Lear reaches a conclusion similar to "Oedipus the King", but with the idea that unselfish human love can, at least temporarily, give beauty and meaning in a godless world.

Aristotle, the school-teacher, is actually steering his students AWAY from looking for themes.

Aristotle goes on to say that the plot is best kept unified, without subplots, and the action not covering more then 24 hours. Subjects from mythology are traditional but not mandatory. (Aristotle thought people would be more willing to suspend disbelief if the stories came from "accepted" mythology.) If there are to be coincidences, they should seem to make sense.

But again, Tragedy is an imitation not only of a complete action, but of events inspiring fear or pity. Such an effect is best produced when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follow as cause and effect. The tragic wonder will then be greater than if they happened of themselves or by accident; for even coincidences are most striking when they have an air of design. We may instance the statue of Mitys at Argos, which fell upon his murderer while he was a spectator at a festival, and killed him. Such events seem not to be due to mere chance. Plots, therefore, constructed on these principles are necessarily the best. -- IX

Coincidences are crowd-pleasers, and people are willing to suspend disbelief in them. (People want to believe in magic.) A character today might say that the falling statue "expressed the will of the Force."

Aristotle launches into a big discussion about "simple" vs. "complex" plots. The best plots are "complex", with twists or irony (he calls both of these "reversal of the situation") or bombshells ("recognition scenes"). Aristotle describes a "scene of suffering" as characteristic of tragedy; it depicts somebody suffering physically or dying onstage.

A perfect tragedy should, as we have seen, be arranged not on the simple but on the complex plan. It should, moreover, imitate actions which excite pity and fear, this being the distinctive mark of tragic imitation. It follows plainly, in the first place, that the change of fortune presented must not be the spectacle of a virtuous man brought from prosperity to adversity: for this moves neither pity nor fear; it merely shocks us. Nor, again, that of a bad man passing from adversity to prosperity: for nothing can be more alien to the spirit of Tragedy; it possesses no single tragic quality; it neither satisfies the moral sense nor calls forth pity or fear. Nor, again, should the downfall of the utter villain be exhibited. A plot of this kind would, doubtless, satisfy the moral sense, but it would inspire neither pity nor fear; for pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves. Such an event, therefore, will be neither pitiful nor terrible. There remains, then, the character between these two extremes- that of a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty. He must be one who is highly renowned and prosperous -- a personage like Oedipus, Thyestes, or other illustrious men of such families. -- XIII

This passage continues to cause problems. Plays about bad people ending up happy don't satisfy Aristotle. ("Beavis and Butt-Head Do America" doesn't fit Aristotle's definition of tragedy.) Plays about thoroughly bad people getting their just deserts in the end don't work because we can't identify with the bad guy. ("Richard III" doesn't fit Aristotle's definition of a tragedy, either.) Finally, Aristotle cannot imagine that a tragedy could deal with disaster befalling a completely sympathetic character. He says this would merely shock us.

But "Oedipus the King" DOES shock us, and is intended to do so. Why is Aristotle avoiding the obvious? We'll soon see.

A well-constructed plot should, therefore, be single in its issue, rather than double as some maintain. The change of fortune should be not from bad to good, but, reversely, from good to bad. It should come about as the result not of vice, but of some great error or frailty, in a character either such as we have described, or better rather than worse. The practice of the stage bears out our view. -- XIII

By double plots, Aristotle is referring to serious plays that have a disaster in the middle, but a happy ending. Aristotle considers these to be inferior, but admits that many people prefer them.

In the second rank comes the kind of tragedy which some place first. Like the Odyssey, it has a double thread of plot, and also an opposite catastrophe for the good and for the bad. It is accounted the best because of the weakness of the spectators; for the poet is guided in what he writes by the wishes of his audience. The pleasure, however, thence derived is not the true tragic pleasure. It is proper rather to Comedy, where those who, in the piece, are the deadliest enemies -- like Orestes and Aegisthus -- quit the stage as friends at the close, and no one slays or is slain. -- XIII

This only makes sense if you share Aristotle's assumption that the purpose of serious drama is to make you have a good scare and a good cry and go back to thinking that real-life is more fair.

Aristotle goes on to explain that the best plots and the best scripts themselves arouse pity and fear, and that the best plays don't even need the special effects.

Fear and pity may be aroused by spectacular means; but they may also result from the inner structure of the piece, which is the better way, and indicates a superior poet. For the plot ought to be so constructed that, even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes place. This is the impression we should receive from hearing the story of the Oedipus. -- XIV

Aristotle goes on...

Let us then determine what are the circumstances which strike us as terrible or pitiful. -- XIV

They are aroused especially when people kill friends or family. The killer may or may not know what he/she is doing. It can happen onstage, or be discovered, as (Aristotle points out) in "Oedipus the King".

Aristotle was a product of his times.

In respect of Character there are four things to be aimed at. First, and most important, it must be good. Now any speech or action that manifests moral purpose of any kind will be expressive of character: the character will be good if the purpose is good. This rule is relative to each class. Even a woman may be good, and also a slave; though the woman may be said to be an inferior being, and the slave quite worthless. The second thing to aim at is propriety. There is a type of manly valor; but valor in a woman, or unscrupulous cleverness is inappropriate. -- XV

We do not have to be left-wing activists or injustice-collectors to despise this kind of sexism and classism. But the truth is that on the Greek stage, the women are as interesting, sympathetic, intelligent and brave as the men -- an obvious fact that Aristotle ignores.

Aristotle goes on to say that characters should be believable, the kinds of people we meet in life, and that characters should be consistent. Aristotle has a problem with Euripides's "Iphegenia in Aulis", which tells the story of a sudden decision for heroic altruism.

It remains to speak of Diction and Thought, the other parts of Tragedy having been already discussed. Concerning Thought, we may assume what is said in the Rhetoric, to which inquiry the subject more strictly belongs. Under Thought is included every effect which has to be produced by speech, the subdivisions being: proof and refutation; the excitation of the feelings, such as pity, fear, anger, and the like; the suggestion of importance or its opposite. Now, it is evident that the dramatic incidents must be treated from the same points of view as the dramatic speeches, when the object is to evoke the sense of pity, fear, importance, or probability. -- XIX

Not themes.

Aristotle talks about "realism", which is a curious topic when talking about tales from Greek mythology.

Further, if it be objected that the description is not true to fact, the poet may perhaps reply, "But the objects are as they ought to be"; just as Sophocles said that he drew men as they ought to be; Euripides, as they are. In this way the objection may be met. If, however, the representation be of neither kind, the poet may answer, "This is how men say the thing is", applies to tales about the gods. It may well be that these stories are not higher than fact nor yet true to fact: they are, very possibly, what Xenophanes says of them. -- XXV

Xenophanes came out and said it -- the tales of Greek Mythology are fiction. Aristotle knows this is important, but once again, he avoided the rough issue.

Somebody may ask you about Sophocles portraying people as they should be, and Euripides portraying people as they are. Sophocles shows Oedipus as gracious, capable, and altruistic. Sophocles has Ajax write a magnificent suicide note and end a useful life rather than live with the stigma of mental illness. Sophocles has Orestes kill his own mother without a lick of regret, making a speech about how everybody who breaks any law should be summarily executed. Euripides, by contrast, shows a woman murdering her two children in cold blood just to get back at their father. You can have fun examining this further.

I think I understand.

Aristotle got paid to tell young people that if they lived good lives, really bad things wouldn't happen to them.

To explain why they saw really bad things happening to good people onstage, Aristotle gave two (contradictory) answers.

1. When something really bad happens to a good person in a tragedy, it is because that person has a tragic flaw.

2. When something really bad happens to a good person in a tragedy, it is just make-believe. It is so you can have a good scare and a good cry. This gets these emotions out of your system. You can go back to the real world, where life is fair.

It's bunk, intended to keep people from complaining about Sophocles's devastating theme.

5. Today

Aristotle may have been the first schoolteacher to smokescreen Sophocles's message that the gods are maybe malicious. He may have thought he was right to do so. Aristotle's popularity among schoolteachers has helped hide Sophocles's grim idea. Even today, students are forced to write essays about "tragic flaws" and "purging pity and fear".

Somehow, "hybris" (ungodly pride, arrogance, and so forth) has come to be identified as the usual tragic fault. I cannot understand why -- the idea does not seem to be Aristotle's. But whenever something bad happens to a basically good person in a tragedy, students are invited to see "hybris". ("Hubris" is the same word; the Greek letter "upsilon" looks like our "Y" and is its origin, but the sound was more like the "uhh" that I make when I have no idea what to say.) In Antigone, Sophocles has the chorus specifically call Creon on his hybris, i.e., his impious decree "intended to promote national security".

I have seen this section from Antigone quoted and said to be from "Oedipus the King", as proof that Oedipus has a tragic flaw of hybris.

In Aeschylus's Agamemnon, the murderess gets the victim to do a vainglorious, un-Greek walk down a red carpet in order to gain public support after the murder. Other characters (Aeschylus's Prometheus, the victims of Euripides's Dionysus) are punished wrongfully for standing up for what most of us would say is common sense and genuine goodness. It is hard to generalize this. Interestingly, I can't find the idea of "hybris" in Aristotle's "Poetics".

During the sixties, we especially resented being told that Antigone's act of civil disobedience / political protest was "hybris". You can't defend yourself against an accusation of "hybris". I am an honest physician who engages in public debates. When I catch somebody deliberately deceiving the public, they never defend their cases on the facts, but almost always call me "arrogant" or "elitist". (If you have no case, shout "hybris!") Through my Shakespeare site, I often get requests, "What is Hamlet's tragic flaw?", etc., etc. I tell people that they're asking the wrong question, and to look instead at what the author is really saying about life.

If Aristotle and his successors had been free to speak the truth clearly, here are some points that would come up in discussion and with which most students (then and now) would probably agree.

  • In our world, very bad things do sometimes happen to very good people. Your chief security comes from what people know you can do well. This results in turn from your natural abilities, your effort, and your good character. It's safest, and the best strategy, to try to be a good person.
  • It's fun to be scared at shows, and to cry. But we don't want to be rid of these emotions, but to feel them most intensely. Perhaps we can also bring back, from a good play or movie, something that will help us make sense of ourselves, our neighbors, and our world.
  • Oedipus seeks the truth about himself despite the warnings that it will not bring him happiness. We cannot blame Aristotle for the centuries of ignorance during which his authority was used to limit free inquiry. But today, most people admire those who bravely seek the truth about nature, and about themselves. It is a modern, rather than an Aristotelian, theme.
  • Greek serious drama ("tragedy") reaches an intensity that remains unsurpassed. Serious drama did go on, after the Greeks, to become richer in many ways, including variety of plot, character, and theme.
  • Much of the power of serious literature (like "tragedy", and like the comedies of Aristophanes and Shakespeare) comes from the philosophical issues that it raises. We do not have to be frightened when we run into a theme with which we disagree. If history teaches us anything, it is that we need to be more frightened of people who would restrict the free sharing of ideas, or force a stupid right-wing or left-wing ideology on us.
  • Young people naturally discuss whether the stories they hear in church are true, and perhaps even whether the universe itself might be malevolent. (Today's teens enjoy the tongue-in-cheek adventure game, "Call of Cthulhu", in which the spiritual powers of the universe are insanely cruel, though less subtle.) Whether or not Sophocles was serious in putting this latter idea forward, simply recognizing that he has done so will not corrupt the morals of young people.
  • Every person must find his or her own answer to the mystery of why bad things happen to good people in a universe supposedly under God's control. Yet even if people reach different conclusions, and express them freely, people can usually still live and work together in peace and good-will.
  • Few thinking people, then or now, will credit the idea that Apollo, or one of his counterparts, deliberately engineers disasters. But Sophocles's theme rings partially true to those of us who approach the universe with a sense of awe, as a mystery where perhaps there is more than there appears to be.

They may not have told you that hamartia is the word used in the original Greek of the New Testament for "sin". The King James Version has 172 instances.

Jim Donahoe's essay on Oedipus's tragic flaw is no longer online. "In the end however, Oedipus becomes more humble and accepts his fate. He becomes a better person and is better off after his fall."

Dr. Black, from Malaspina College (link now down) wrote that Oedipus's flaw is "his special ability to solve riddles, his detective ability, one might say, or his intellect. Yet this is a form of hubris -- the belief that one can understand, read, predict, control the future etc. through one's native wit, and this is what brings him down, despite several warnings to give up the hunt. Reason = Apollo."

Myth Man. "Oedipus... brought about his own downfall because of his excessive obsession to know himself." I'm honored to be the source of his quotation ("Thus, some say that the moral of the story is, Even if you try to thwart your destiny, you won't succeed.").

Link is now down. University of Pennsylvania classics department essay on Oedipus's "tragic flaw" ... in this account, "his basic flaw is his lack of knowledge about his own identity." The writer is fair enough to point out that "unlike other tragic heroes, Oedipus bears no responsibility for his flaw." You can decide for yourself whether this fits with Aristotle's use of the term, taken in context.

Ian Johnston -- also offers a free translation (thanks!) Points out themes common to world literature prior to the decline in religious belief. "Who does control our lives? What sort of relationship do we have to that divine force?" Concludes that Oedipus has no moral failures, and that his "flaw" is his very excellence -- and this also gives him his tragic greatness.

Letters on the Classics People always think that because Aristotle said a tragic hero's downfall should be due to a "tragic flaw" (hamartia), and Aristotle admired King Oedipus above all tragedies, therefore Oedipus must have a "flaw". [This is a false premise under Aristotle's very own logic.] And so they have struggled to find one!... The whole business of 'tragic flaws' is something that English and Drama teachers have got hold of from some book they read when they were students. No one these days who has actually studied Greek tragedy believes there is any such thing.

Tragic Flaws . ... I realized something quite interesting: just about everything Aristotle says about tragic heroes is wrong. Aristotle had postulated the principle of the tragic flaw in tragedy. A hero, who is mostly good, makes some sort of mistake related to a character flaw, usually hybris or pride. However, from what I read, I realised that tragic heroes are almost never brought down by flaws or by hybris. In fact, in most cases, the protagonist is actually destroyed by his or her virtues. In puzzling over this, I realised that Aristotle is, in fact,not trying to explain exactly what is happening in tragedy but what should be happening. He is answering a very specific challenge to the very existence of tragedy presented by Plato in the Republic Book III. Plato had argued that tragedy corrupted the audience. Aristotle's development of the tragic flaw is a response to this challenge. The author has a Ph.D. in Ancient and Medieval Philosophy.

Cyber Essays to help students. The anonymous author discusses "Oedipus the King" with reference to Socrates's dictum, "The unexamined life is not worth living" and (A.A. "Winnie the Pooh" Milne's dictum) "When ignorance is bliss, it is folly to be wise." Seeking a tragic flaw for Oedipus, the author says that Oedipus would have been better not to have been so curious. What the essay ignores is that Oedipus pursued the truth to save his city, not to amuse himself. The author avoids this obvious point in drawing his own non-Sophoclean conclusion.

"It's better not to know." You'll hear this again from anti-science college-campus types on both the far-right and the far-left, who want to reshape society down ideological lines. You'll have to decide for yourself about this. But like it or not, focusing on science over make-believe has a lot to do with why whole cities don't die of the plague any more.

Free School Paper on Oedipus's tragic flaw.
Free College Essays on Oedipus's tragic flaw.

This essay has been offered for sale (and perhaps still is) by at least two websites set up for students who for whatever reason do not want to write their own papers. I have received no response to my protests.

Teachers: Click here to begin your search for online essays intended for would-be plagiarists. "Dishonesty was your tragic flaw, kid!" Good luck.

turnitin.com -- anti-plagiary software

Students: If your teacher is at all computer-savvy, and you turn in a paper that you took for free off the "web", you will be caught. Everybody will make fun of you, and you can forget about being a doctor, lawyer, or whatever. That'll be your "tragic flaw." Ha ha!

Arthur Miller wrote, "The flaw, or crack in the character [of Oedipus], is really nothing -- and need be nothing -- but his inherent unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what he conceives to be a challenge to his dignity, his image of his rightful status. Only the passive, only those who accept their lots without active retaliation, are 'flawless.' Most of us are in that category." Miller adds that "the terror and the fear that is classically associated with tragedy" comes from questioning the unquestioned. Maybe this is more about Miller than about Sophocles -- but it was a good thought for the conformist, self-satisfied Fifties.


Shakespeare Company film
1967 production with good notes
Historical productions
Culver City -- modern-dress
Oedipus -- heroic-fantasy style painting
Radomir Perica illustration -- sphinx having the last laugh
Jan Morrison -- focus on themes

The Classics Pages -- Oedipus. Best online Oedipus site.

Iokaste -- contemporary novel about Oedipus's wife-mother. Release date Sept. 2004.

I'm Ed. You can visit me at my own page and follow the links from there to my autopsy page, my notes on disease (the largest one-man online medical show, helping individuals around the world), my Adventure Gaming sites, or any of the other sites.

You can E-mail me at erf@kcumb.edu.

Brown University, Department of English -- my home base, 1969-1973.

Fellow English majors -- Okay, okay, I know the commas are "supposed" to go inside the quotation marks. This became standard to protect fragile bits of movable type. My practice lets me know I'm the one who's typed a particular document.

Teens: Stay away from drugs, work yourself extremely hard in class or at your trade, play sports if and only if you like it, tell the grownups who support you that you love them (no matter what the circumstances), and get out of abusive relationships by any means. The best thing anybody can say about you is, "That kid likes to work too hard and isn't taking it easy like other young people."

Greek tragedies include some characters who commit suicide. It is almost always a bad idea. Among young people who made serious attempts and failed, 99% said a year later that they are glad they failed.

Thanks for visiting. Health and friendship.

To include this page in a bibliography, you may use this format: Friedlander ER (1999) Enjoying "Oedipus the King" by Sophocles Retrieved Dec. 25, 2003 from http://www.pathguy.com/oedipus.htm

For Modern Language Association sticklers, the name of the site itself is "The Pathology Guy" and the Sponsoring Institution or Organization is Ed Friedlander MD.

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"What is there about the classics that would interest a contemporary American?"

Visitors send me this question from time to time.

If being a "contemporary American" means being focused on dirty TV sitcoms, greed, casual sex, big-money sports, shout-and-pout grievance-group politics, televangelism, professional wrestling, crybabies, slot machines, postmodernism, political action committees, and "war on drugs" profiteering... then the answer is probably "Nothing."

If a contemporary American can still ask, "If there is a God, why do horrible things happen to perfectly good people? And how do we explain this to children?" -- then the answer is maybe that "Sophocles deals with basic human issues."


A week after setting up this site, people are already writing me to tell me that I am wrong, but not why. Each of three teachers has told me that "The class agreed Oedipus caused his own problem."

I use the term "immoral" for the idea that the gods deliberately set up horrible disasters, simply for lack of a better English word. And it seems appropriate to me. ("Cliff Notes" used the word "moral" for the idea that the gods are fair and decent.) If you can think of a better one, please let me know.

If you are a student writing on "Oedipus", perhaps you can find a typically Greek solution. Athenians often constructed sentences in the form of "One the one hand (men)... and on the other hand (de)...." Argue both sides. It'll be fun and prevent trouble.

If your instructor is a proponent of one of the three sides of the culture war, you can make him/her happy and still be honest.

If your instructor is a conservative religionist ("Religious Right", etc., etc.), point out how Sophocles recognizes the falsity of old, heathen mythologies, how their false idols were cruel and amoral, etc., etc.

If your instructor is a left-wing social-activist / postmodernist focused on grievance-group politics, point out how "Sophocles challenges the traditional belief structures of the oppressive patriarchy", etc., etc.

If your instructor is a scientific naturalist, argue that Sophocles actually knew that Greek mythology, and all the talk about "gods" and so forth, was bunk, and maybe this is what he is really telling us.

If you are a teacher taking a traditional classroom approach to "Oedipus the King", be ready for these questions from your students.

  • "Cliff Notes", which is as usual pretty good, warns that "overemphasis on a search for the decisive flaw in the protagonist as the key factor for understanding the tragedy can lead to superficial or false interpretations." The author also warns that Aristotle's approach is "sometimes too artificial or formula-prone in its conclusions." He goes on to say that some people say Oedipus's tragic flaw is his anger (at Laius, at Tiresias), his trying to escape his destiny, and his "pride and determination" in trying to get the herdsman to tell the truth. (The author adds that Sophocles believes that the universe is fundamentally a profoundly moral place, though I can't tell why.) Why all the different supposed "tragic flaws"?
  • If a lone man is hassled and then physically attacked by a group of thugs on a deserted stretch of highway, especially when the area is not patrolled by fast police cars, he is much safer if he hits back than if he runs or begs for mercy. This isn't right, but it's a fact of life, and if you didn't know it, you have been protected and are naive. Sophocles presents Oedipus's killing of Laius as self-defense. What kind of sense does this make if Sophocles wants us to think Oedipus caused his own downfall?
  • Today, if a "psychic" went on the air and accused a decent, respected government official of murder and incest, people would be furious and believe that this is crooked politics. Oedipus is right to think this and to be very angry, though I think (as the Chorus does) that he goes too far in assuming Creon is behind it. Why would anybody think Oedipus should NOT be suspicious and angry?
  • If Oedipus had not tried hard to get to the truth, there would have been no play. Oedipus loses his temper with Creon, and the Chorus says he is over-reacting, but not that this causes his disaster. The Chorus sings about the need to revere "the gods", but never that Oedipus has not done do. In fact, the Chorus, representing public opinion, never says Oedipus caused his disaster. This is in spectacular contrast to the ending of "Antigone", where the Chorus sings about Creon's hybris ("I refuse to allow proper religious burial rites for a man who endangered National Security, this will make him an example and keep our people safe") and how it caused his ruin ("Religion and conscience and decency and human love take precedence over supposed National Security.")
  • Does the word hybris even appear in Aristotle's "Poetics"?
  • The site went up in 1998, and has proved very popular. Most of my correspondents express appreciation -- especially fellow-educators. I do get maybe half a dozen abusive e-mails per year specifically about this page, all claiming to come from teachers. (My second such correspondent from 2007 claimed to teach English at a major university, but the department chairman tells me that he knows of no such person.) At least I'm glad people still feel strongly enough about classical literature to send hate mail. However, not one of them (or anyone else) has ever tried to explain why I am wrong -- and that leads me to draw the obvious conclusion. "If you have no case, shout hybris." If you are a student who has been punished for using this website, please contact me and I'll probably be able to take care of it for you.

Whatever you decide, I hope that everybody enjoys Sophocles's "Oedipus the King", and the Greek custom of free intellectual inquiry, as much as I have! Health and friendship!

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Arthur Miller   From February 12, 2005

The American playwright who wrote Death of a Salesman, withstood the anti-communist witch-hunts and married Marilyn Monroe

Arthur Miller will be remembered by some as the intellectual who made a famously unsuitable marriage to Marilyn Monroe, and by others as the staunch liberal who risked imprisonment by defying the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities. But his main legacy is the series of plays — Death of a Salesman and The Crucible prime among them — that had established him as his nation’s leading dramatist by the mid-1950s and continue to be revived and studied throughout the world.

Miller said that he saw himself as “a sort of prophet”, heir to a tradition of civic responsibility and political involvement which, he claimed, went back to the Greek playwrights. For him, it was the function of drama not merely to ask “great questions” but to seek to “create a higher consciousness” and even to “change the world”. Whether or not he achieved quite that, he certainly brought a unique blend of intelligence, moral passion and dramatic skill to many of the 20th century’s central concerns, from the lure of materialism to the importance of the individual conscience and the significance of the Holocaust.

The dramatist-to-be was born in 1915, the son of affluent Jewish-American parents, and brought up in the then prosperous New York district of Harlem. But in 1929 his father’s coat-manufacturing business, which at one time had employed nearly a thousand workers, was hit by the Depression, and the family was eventually forced to move to humbler quarters in Brooklyn.

The impact of this period on Miller cannot be overestimated. For him, the Depression was a “millenarian moment” matched in importance in American history only by the Civil War. As he once said: “Until 1929 I thought things were pretty solid and somebody was in charge, probably a businessman and a realistic, no- nonsense fellow. In 1929 he jumped out of the window. It was bewildering.”

The Depression was to feature in several of Miller’s plays, notably The American Clock and The Price, both of which see it as painful yet cleansing proof of the fragility not only of the social contract but also of family ties. According to his autobiography, Timebends, the disruption extended to his own family, with his mother showing a “sneering contempt” for the husband whom she blamed for their impoverishment.

The failure of his father’s business meant that there was no money to send Miller to university in 1932 after he graduated from high school — where in any case he had shone more on the sporting field than in the classroom. So he became a $15-a-week shipping clerk in an automobile parts warehouse. He began to read voraciously, developing an interest both in politics and in literature. Before long he had embraced socialism, and though his thinking was always more in the liberal-humanist tradition of Emerson, he began to call himself a Marxist. He also secured himself a place at the University of Michigan, and there he started to write plays, paying his way largely with the money these proceeded to make from the college’s literary prizes.

On his graduation in 1938 Miller joined the Federal Theatre Project, a New Deal agency established to provide jobs for actors, writers and theatre technicians. But with Congress nervous of communist infiltration, the scheme was discontinued before he could finish The Golden Years, a play relating Cortéz’s conquest of the Aztec empire to events in contemporary Europe.

Miller then took a job in the Brooklyn Navy Yard — an experience on which he was to draw in A View from the Bridge, his play about Italian longshoremen — and made his first marriage, in 1940, to Mary Slattery, the Catholic daughter of an insurance salesman.

With a knee injury sustained in high school keeping him out of the Armed Forces during the Second World War, Miller continued to live, work and write in Brooklyn. For a while during the early 1940s he wrote 28-minute storytelling radio scripts for CBS, sponsored by companies such as DuPont and American Steel (“I only worked for the best”).

These broadcasts — recordings of which unexpectedly surfaced in 2003 — were written to order on subjects that he had quickly to assimilate and turn into drama. They ranged from the story of the discovery of penicillin and current wartime heroism to tales about historical figures, and in writing them against a deadline, Miller learnt some of the disciplines and possibilities of his trade. “My model was the book of Genesis. Read that and within about a page and a half you have mankind; that’s the way to tell a story.”

Some of these scripts were in verse, and Miller later recalled that it was thanks to actors of the calibre of Orson Welles and their training in Shakespeare that he could use the conciseness of verse without it sounding arch, and without the audience even realising that they were listening to verse.

His social conscience, too, was stirring. A three-week visit to an early plastic surgery and burns unit, for instance, led him to write a memo to the station, arguing that the broadcasts should give a more realistic idea of the suffering of war, because anything less dishonoured the men they were trying to support.

In 1944 Miller saw his play The Man Who Had All the Luck open on Broadway and close after only four performances. This was, however, followed by All My Sons, a masterpiece which won the Drama Critics’ Circle Award for 1947. Two years later came Death of a Salesman, which ran on Broadway for 742 performances, won the Pulitzer prize and the Tony award for best play, and established Miller as one of the major dramatists of his generation.

Both plays dealt with themes that were to recur in Miller’s work, the damage wrought by materialist values and the fragmentation of the family. In All My Sons, the protagonist is a businessman who has allowed defective parts to be fitted to aircraft, thus causing a series of fatal crashes. The consequences come home to him with truly tragic inevitability. In Death of a Salesman, the protagonist is Willy Loman, the commercial traveller and archetypal American dreamer. Whether or not Loman really demonstrated that the common man was a fit subject for tragedy — as the author himself suggested in the most important of his many essays about the theatre — he remains the best-known of Miller’s characters.

As Miller grew more prominent, his left-wing sympathies increasingly became the object of suspicion and attack. His adaptation of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People, staged in 1950, was rightly seen as a swipe at McCarthyite persecution. But that was a minor provocation beside The Crucible, which retold the story of the Salem witchhunts and celebrated the “terrible marvel” of victims prepared to die rather than lie. Retelling this tale during the fevered period of America’s 20th-century witch-hunts, this won Miller a Tony award for the best play of 1953, but also the enmity of the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities.

Thanks to the committee’s influence, Miller was denied a passport to attend the opening of The Crucible in Belgium and had funding withdrawn from a film he was making about violence among young people in New York.

A direct confrontation with the committee was delayed until 1956, however, by which time Miller had become a nationwide celebrity for somewhat surprising reasons. The earnest intellectual had divorced his wife and was about to marry the actress Marilyn Monroe. Eager to trade on the publicity this generated, the committee summoned Miller — only to have him refuse to name the people he had seen at a communist writers’ meeting in 1949. Unlike Miller, his friend and colleague Elia Kazan, who had directed All My Sons and Death of a Salesman, did name names during the McCarthy period, causing tension in an already complex professional relationship.

For his refusal Miller was cited for contempt of Congress. In 1957 he was brought before the House, fined $500 and given a suspended 30-day prison sentence: a conviction that was overturned when his appeal came before the Supreme Court a year later.

This experience found dramatic expression in After the Fall, a semi-autobiographical play produced in 1964, as did his relationship to Marilyn Monroe. His marriage to the deeply insecure and demanding actress — a woman “dancing at the edge of oblivion”, as he put it in Timebends — had predictably proved to be a difficult and often stormy one, and it ended in divorce in 1961. In 1962 he was married for the third and last time, to the Austrian-born photographer Ingeborg Morath, a relationship that allowed the often despairing After the Fall to end in an affirmation of the importance of love.

Miller became president of PEN International in 1965, and was primarily responsible for transforming it from an inconsequential literary club into what he called “the conscience of the world writing community”: It was, for instance, due to his intervention that Wole Soyinka was saved from execution during the Biafran war and Fernando Arrabal from imprisonment in Franco’s Spain. Right into his seventies, Miller was a remarkably energetic, outgoing, good-humoured man, a tireless crusader for human rights as well as an active playwright.

While critics tend to agree that his most vital creative period stretched from All My Sons in 1947 to A View from the Bridge in 1956, his later plays, notably The Price, The American Clock and The Archbishop’s Ceiling, have their admirers. His adaptation of Fania Fenelon’s Playing for Time, in which Vanessa Redgrave played an Auschwitz inmate, was widely regarded as one of the most distinguished dramas ever written for television.

However, his reputation in recent years, though robust in the academies of both countries, has proved more resilient among British than among American theatregoers. The National Theatre alone has revived Death of a Salesman, The American Clock, After the Fall, A View from the Bridge and, on no fewer than three occasions, The Crucible, in most cases with conspicuous success. Indeed, Miller’s disenchantment with what he called “the brutal inanity of Broadway ” explains why two of his most recent plays, The Ride Down Mount Morgan and The Last Yankee received their world premieres in London in 1991 and 1993 respectively.

His Broken Glass was staged at the National Theatre in 1994, and his fascination with memory continued with Mr Peter’s Connections, staged in London in 2000. His last plays were Resurrection Blues (2002), a satire on how the media would cope with the Second Coming, and Finishing the Picture (2004) inspired by the troubled shooting of the film The Misfits (1961), featuring Monroe herself and Clark Gable.

Some have attacked Miller for writing (in the words of the critic Robert Brustein) “old-fashioned, social-psychological melodramas” on the theme of political or family responsibility. Certainly, many of his plays are furnaces or, as he put it, crucibles in which an exemplary individual’s principles are tested and judged according to their integrity and their altruism. And certainly Miller continued to communicate an unfashionable belief in the potential of man — and the key figures are almost always male — for good as well as ill. As he once said: “The European playwrights can tell me it’s hopeless, and by and large it is; but it’s not 100 per cent hopeless is all I’m about to tell you.”

There were a son and daughter of Miller’s first marriage. His third wife died in 2002. They had one daughter, Rebecca Miller, a film director, who married the actor Daniel Day-Lewis after he starred in a film version of The Crucible in 1996, for which Miller himself wrote the film adaptation.

Arthur Miller, dramatist, was born on October 17, 1915. He died on February 10, 2005, aged 89.

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The Eagle

by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;

Close to the sun in lonely lands,

Ring'd with the azure world, he stands.


The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;

He watches from his mountain walls,

And like a thunderbolt he falls.


by William Shakespeare

When daisies pied and violets blue

   And lady-smocks all silver-white

And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue

   Do paint the meadows with delight,

The cuckoo then, on every tree,

Mocks married men; for thus sings he,


Cuckoo, cuckoo: Oh word of fear,

Unpleasing to a married ear!


When shepherds pipe on oaten straws,

   And merry larks are plowmen’s clocks,

When turtles tread, and rooks, and daws,

   And maidens bleach their summer smocks,

The cuckoo then, on every tree,

Mocks married men; for thus sings he,


Cuckoo, cuckoo: Oh word of fear,

Unpleasing to a married ear!

"Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind"

by William Shakespeare

   Blow, blow, thou winter wind,

   Thou art not so unkind

      As man’s ingratitude;

   Thy tooth is not so keen,

Because thou art not seen,

      Although thy breath be rude.

Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly:

Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:

   Then, heigh-ho, the holly!

      This life is most jolly.


   Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky,

   That dost not bite so nigh

      As benefits forgot:

   Though thou the waters warp,

      Thy sting is not so sharp

      As friend remembered not.

Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly...

Anthem for Doomed Youth

by Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

      Only the monstrous anger of the guns.

      Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle

Can patter out their hasty orisons.

No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,

      Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—

The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;

      And bugles calling for them from sad shires.


What candles may be held to speed them all?

      Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes

Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.

      The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;

Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,

And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

There’s been a Death, in the Opposite House

by Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

There’s been a Death, in the Opposite House,

As lately as Today —

I know it, by the numb look

Such Houses have — alway —


The Neighbors rustle in and out —

The Doctor — drives away —

A Window opens like a Pod —

Abrupt — mechanically —


Somebody flings a Mattress out —

The Children hurry by —

They wonder if it died — on that —

I used to — when a Boy —


The Minister — goes stiffly in —

As if the House were His —

And He owned all the Mourners — now —

And little Boys — besides —


And then the Milliner — and the Man

Of the Appalling Trade —

To take the measure of the House —


There’ll be that Dark Parade —


Of Tassels — and of Coaches — soon —

It’s easy as a Sign —

The Intuition of the News —

In just a Country Town —


Parable of the Old Man and the Young

 By  Wilfred Owen


So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,

And took the fire with him, and a knife.

And as they sojourned both of them together,

Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,

Behold the preparations, fire and iron,

But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?

Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,

and builded parapets and trenches there,

And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.

When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,

Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,

Neither do anything to him. Behold,

A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;

Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.




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Taking Emily Dickinson’s Clothes Off

                               By Billy Collins


First, her tippet made of tulle,

easily lifted off her shoulders and laid

on the back of a wooden chair.


And her bonnet,

the bow undone with a light forward pull.


Then the long white dress, a more

complicated matter with mother-of-pearl

buttons down the back,

so tiny and numerous that it takes forever

before my hands can part the fabric,

like a swimmer's dividing water,

and slip inside.


You will want to know

that she was standing

by an open window in an upstairs bedroom,

motionless, a little wide-eyed,

looking out at the orchard below,

the white dress puddled at her feet

on the wide-board, hardwood floor.


The complexity of women's undergarments

in nineteenth-century America

is not to be waved off,

and I proceeded like a polar explorer

through clips, clasps, and moorings,

catches, straps, and whalebone stays,

sailing toward the iceberg of her nakedness.


Later, I wrote in a notebook

it was like riding a swan into the night,

but, of course, I cannot tell you everything -

the way she closed her eyes to the orchard,

how her hair tumbled free of its pins,

how there were sudden dashes

whenever we spoke.


What I can tell you is

it was terribly quiet in Amherst

that Sabbath afternoon,

nothing but a carriage passing the house,

a fly buzzing in a windowpane.


So I could plainly hear her inhale

when I undid the very top

hook-and-eye fastener of her corset


and I could hear her sigh when finally it was unloosed,

the way some readers sigh when they realize

that Hope has feathers,

that reason is a plank,

that life is a loaded gun

that looks right at you with a yellow eye.

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Sylvia Plath’s Trauma

Posted by Loren

Studying the life and work of Sylvia Plath leads the student down a path littered with the dangers of hasty conclusions.

Poet Sylvia Plath, 1933-63, is often lauded as the guide-on bearer of the feminist movement, but after my recent short study of her life and some of her work, I think she truly only represents herself as a traumatized woman for whom psychiatric treatment was not successful.

Apparently much of her pain originated from her relationship with her father who died when Plath was ten. The year was 1943, the middle of World War II. He was Austrian, and much of Plath’s2 work is a pastiche of references to the war and the Holocaust.

Plath’s mother was no help. She seemed cold and uncommunicative to me, a woman who was more concerned with what others would think of her and her daughter. She did seek psychiatric help for Plath, but she continued to want Plath to be a good girl and not embarrass her.

Nothing seemed to bring balance to Plath’s life even though she was an outstanding student, earning a scholarship to Smith College and later a scholarship to study in England where she met and married Ted Hughes who would become the Poet Laureate of England.

The plan was to retreat to a home outside of London, Court Green, to live as working poets, raising vegetables and kids, not succumbing to the glare of London literary life.

But the life of the secluded poet did not continue. After seven years of marriage Plath surely found out about Hughes’ adulterous relationship with another poet’s wife, Assia Wevill, who became pregnant. Plath moved back to London with her two children, Frieda, age four, and Nicholas, age one, and suffered through most of an extremely cold winter. It was in her London flat that Plath committed suicide in 1963.

Would she have become the literary figure she wanted to be if she had lived? Her poetry would certainly have sustained her reputation, but all of the attention paid her over the years has been because of her early death. Most of her poems and her novel The Bell Jar were published posthumously. The Collected Poems edited by Ted Hughes won the Pulitzer Prize 19 years after her death.

Because of all the secondary information about Plath which has become an industry in itself, one must read Plath’s journals, her poetry, and The Bell Jar for himself to understand her and not her analysts.

First I draw my impression of Plath from her novel The Bell Jar, a story about her alter ego Esther Greenwood who spends a summer as an intern for a women’s magazine in New York City. The novel was published under a pseudonym in England first and was later published in the United States 1971 by Ted Hughes and typically under the protest of Plath’s mother. One biographer recorded Hughes published the book to fund the purchase of a third home. Ted is most often seen as the evil doer in Plath’s life, to use an expression au courant.

The title of the book is a reference to the oppression Esther feels. She feels showcased in a glass jar, her behavior restricted and watched constantly by her neighbors, her teachers, doctors, her mother.

Esther/Sylvia is a bright college student who “ knew something was wrong with me that summer…” In what seems like a giant leap to treatment, Esther is sent for electroshock therapy after a few visits to a psychiatrist. She spends much of her time in the rings of a mental hospital, moving from one level of confinement to another, until eventually she is released. The restrictions and confinement of the hospital mirror the restrictions and expectations of society in general. So many rules applied upon the person. There is also a second attempt at suicide.

Then there is sex. Esther is expected to marry a med student, Buddy Willard, who has been sent to a sanitarium for tuberculosis. He also confesses that he has had sex while Esther remains a virgin. Esther is devastated by this inequity and searches for someone, not Buddy, to claim her virginity. Armed with birth control pills, she sleeps with Irwin, a stranger who has asked her for the time of day. After intercourse, Esther hemorrhages and must be treated at a hospital. The episode is another example of an action that should be liberating and fulfilling which instead makes Esther a victim.

Mothers always play major roles in autobiographies. Mrs. Greenwood means well, but throughout the novel she is much more concerned with appearances than with real help for her daughter Esther. Mr. Greenwood has died, leaving the family without insurance, and Mrs. Greenwood must work hard to support herself and Esther. Mrs. Greenwood wants Esther to learn shorthand so she will always be employable, but Esther resists, knowing the life of a stenographer is not for her. Fortunately, there is a scholarship to college, an absolute financial necessity which Esther must not lose, and Esther feels the pressure to do well academically, take the right classes, achieve scholastic success. Achieve, achieve, achieve–what is the question. Her ambition and desire for career is explained in the metaphor of a fig tree–so many figs/careers to choose from; knowing which to pick is the frustration.

Marriage and motherhood offer no pleasant anticipation either. Esther watches in horror her neighbor with six children.

Even though the novel achieved no great literary acclaim, The Bell Jar became a manual for the feminist movement, denoting what awful things American society did to their precocious girls in the 50s an 60s.

My impression is Plath saw herself as a victim too much of the time, no matter what opportunity for success and happiness she was given. She came from a middle class family in which her father was a college professor who had a reputation for his knowledge of bees. His death was traumatic, and she hung on to her conflict over his death, writing about her relationship with him in her poem ‘Daddy.”


You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.

Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time–
Marble-heavy , a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one gray toe
Big as a Frisco seal

And a head in the freakish Atlantic
Where it pours bean green over blue
In the waters off beautiful Nauset.
I used to pray to recover you.
Ach, du.

In the German tongue, in the Polish town
Scraped flat by the roller
Of wars, wars, wars.
But the name of the town is common.
My Polack friend

Says there are a dozen or two.
So I never could tell where you
Put your foot, your root,
I never could talk to you. The tongue stuck in my jaw.

It stuck in a barb wire snare.
Ich, ich, ich, ich,
I could hardly speak.
I thought every German was you .
And the language obscene

An engine, an engine
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew.

The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna
Are not very pure or true.
With my gipsy ancestress and my weird luck
And my Taroc pack and Taroc pack
I may be a bit of a Jew.

I have always been scared of you
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You–

Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.

You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not
Any less the black man who

Bit my pretty red heart in two.
I ws ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.

But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look

And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.
So daddy, I’m through.
The black telephone’s off at the root,
The voices just can’t worm through.

If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two–
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Se ven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.

There’s a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.


The theme of confinement presents itself again in the poem “Daddy.” a “black shoe” becomes the metaphor for her dad under his influence she has “lived like a foot…Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.”

The poem expresses not only her conflict with her father but also a commentary of what must have been some serious turmoil over having an Austrian father who spoke German, “the language obscene,” while the United States was at war with Germany. Plath thinks she “may well be a Jew” “scared of her dad" “With your Luftwaffe…neat mustache…Aryan eye…Panzer-man, panzer-man…”

But the next stanza she writes “Every woman adores a Fascist,” an expression of the attraction she feels for a man she is also very afraid of. He is a devil with “A cleft in your chin instead of your foot.”

He has “Bit my pretty red heart in two…At twenty I tried to die And get back, back, back to you. I thought even the bones would do…a man in black with a Meinkampf look.”

The final three stanzas alert the reader that for Plath there is even more than fear and hatred of her dead father. Another issue is she feels she killed her father, and now after marrying, she is in the process of killing a second man, her husband, Ted Hughes whom she sees as a replica of her father. “If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two–…The vampire who said he was you And drank my blood for a year, Seven years, if you want to know. Daddy, you can lie back now.” Plath must have known of Hughes adultery when she wrote this poem. Often wives feel responsible for their husband’s infidelity.

There is no resolution of her father’s death early in her life; her idealized marriage has become torture. Husband Ted Hughes was often unfaithful to her and some biographers blame him for Plath’s suicide. To compound the negative feelings Plath readers feel toward Hughes is the fact six years after Plath committed suicide his mistress, Assia Wevill, also killed herself and their four year old daughter, Shura. Ted Hughes married a second time and continued his affairs with other women. He died in 1998.

Psychiatrists need to explore Plath’s relationships with men probably repeated over and over based on her first relationship with her father. My reaction is daddies need to be very careful with their daughters to avoid causing the trauma Plath suffered and had the talent to write about and the misfortune to repeat in her choice of a husband.

The second poem most often referenced as most representative of Plath is “Lady Lazarus,” which deals with her third attempt at suicide, also published in 1962.


I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it–

A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot

A paperweight,
My face a featureless, fine
Jew linen.

Peel off the napkin
O my enemy.
Do I terrify?–

The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?
The sour breath
Will vanish in a day.

So on, soon the flesh
The grave cave ate will be
At home on me

And I a smiling woman.
I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.

This is Number Three.
What a trash
To annihilate each decade.

What a million filaments.
The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see

Them unwrap me hand and foot–The big strip tease.
Gentlemen, ladies

These are my hands
My knees.
I may be skin and bone,

Nevertheless, I am the same identical woman.
The first time it happened I was ten.
It was an accident.

The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.
I rocked shut

As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.

Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.

It’s easy enough to do it in a cell.
It’s easy enough to do it and stay put.
It’s the theatrical

Comeback in broad day
To the same place, the same face, the same brute
Amused shout:

“A miracle!”
That knocks me out.
There is a charge

For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge
For the hearing of my heart–It really goes.

And there is a charge, a very large charge
For a word or a touch
Or a bit of blood

Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.
So, so, Herr Doktor.
So, Herr Enemy.

I am your opus,
I am your valuable,
The pure gold baby

That melts to a shriek.
I turn and burn.
Do not think I underestimate your great concern.

Ash, ash–You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there–

A cake of soap, A wedding ring,
A gold filling.

Herr God, Herr Lucifer

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

Plath would be successful in the fourth suicide attempt as she left her two children in her London flat, closed the door to the kitchen and stuck her head in the gas oven.

She again uses references to the Nazis, the horrors of the Holocaust. She sees herself awakening as “A sort of walking miracle, my skin Bright as a Nazi lampshade…My face a featureless, fine Jew linen.”

She has not died this time. “And I a smiling woman. I am only thirty. And like the cat I have nine times to die.” Readers can sense that this was not going to be the last of the suicide attempts. Plath saw she was talented in attempting death. “Dying Is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well…I guess you could say I’ve a call.”

Her talent for death needs to be rewarded and she wants to charge observers who speak to her, touch her, want a “piece of my hair or my clothes” when she is revived. Here again is her expression she is always being observed.

In stanza 22 she addresses her doctor as “Herr Doktor, …Herr Enemy.” She has become his “opus”, his success, and she does not “underestimate your great concern.” But she has a warning for the men who bring her back to life. “Flesh, bone, there is nothing there–A cake of soap, A wedding ring, A gold filling. Herr God, Herr Lucifer Beware Beware.” The references to the concentration camps and the burning of the Jews continues. God and Lucifer are referred to with German addresses.

The last line is chilling. No one would want to know the agony of a woman who has just attempted suicide and sees herself not as a victim but as a force that destroys men. ”And I eat men like air.”

So my conclusion on Sylvia Plath. Read her journals. Read The Bell Jar and her poetry. Read Janet Malcolm’s analysis of the analyses of Plath entitled The Silent Woman. Another choice would be Sylvia and Ted written by Emma Tennant who also had an affair with Ted Hughes. Visit PlathOnline.com. Most of all, keep this in mind: here was a woman who was bright, talented, afforded opportunity for education and success. She desired the life of a renowned poet, keeping a salon for other creative souls. In fact she married a renowned poet. She must have laughed, acted silly, dressed up, but her perception of life too often casts her in the role of victim, experiencing devastating disappointments which she could not overcome.

Diane McCormick

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Sylvia Plath’s Gangsta Rap Legacy

    By  Jeremy Richards,  on July 30, 2003

Mack Daddy.
Mack Daddy you do not do.
Hootie hoo.

Every woman adores a playa’.

The crow casts his judgmental shadow
over my bootielisciousness
but you confess no less than this,
ghastly ghetto goo goo God.
I shall hit them with the hee,
by which I mean the inevitable decline
over time of my reflection in your chrome low rider,
hitting the cider like a rotting oak,
but not enough to cloak your disdain for me,

Mack Daddy,
Ach. Ach. Du.
Du hast mich.


In this picture I have of you,
the gold chains weigh you down
more than your confessions of contempt.


Come, tempt me with your fistfuls of dolla bills;
I have already swallowed the pills of your neglect,
and they taste like forty ounces of freedom
in the well of regret.


Dying is an art,
like everything else,
I do it, yeah do it,
do it until you can’t take it no more.


Sometimes I like to shake my moneymaker,
sometimes I don’t.
Sometimes I prefer to be all up in your stuff,
sometimes I don’t.
Sometimes I like to cradle a razor blade like a
forgotten daughter,
sometimes I’d rather not.


I’m off the hook
because I’ve hung myself with the distance
between our voices.


Ash, ash…you talkin’ trash?
Don’t make me represent
what a vengeful God has sent
to accuse me of existence.

My penance is your weak-ass game.

You shall never tame me, Mack Daddy;
the calligraphy of scars across my heart
is fashioned from the grooves
I spin on the ones and the twos.

The pain in my soul, I bought it.
The burden in my womb, I bought it.
So throw your hands up at me,
and I will trace the lineage of your sins
spread across your palms like new veins,
diggity dig my grave with your breakfast spoon.
You know why I am Supa dupa fly, too,
but Mack Daddy you will not do, you will not
ever come close to gettin all my lovin’,


Mack Daddy, if you can’t stand the heat …

then get yo’ head out of the oven.






Analysis of Wilfred Owen's Anthem for a Doomed Youth

Julie Moore

Published November 11, 2009 by:


Wilfred Owen's Anthem for a Doomed Youth is exactly that, an anthem ( a solemn song) to commemorate the "children" that will die in this war. By using the word anthem, he calls to mind the glory and honor of a national anthem, however; he goes on to explain that there is no honor or glory in death. Written in sonnet form, it is an elegy for the dead. The octave deals with auditory images of war and death and the sestet deals with more visual images. Wilfred Owen masterfully uses both imagery and figurative language to convey his lament for these young people who will die.

In the octet of this poem (the first eight lines), Owen catalogues all the images of death, from the "passing bells" (1), "anger of the guns" (2), rattle of guns (3), funeral prayers (4), "wailing shells" (7), "bugles and sad shires" (8). Many of these images are personified as well, such as the rattling guns and wailing shells. These images will be the funeral that the boys get, not the real one that they deserve. This personification contributes to the harshness of the images and creates auditory images for the reader. The reader can hear the sensory images. However, these images are also set directly against religious imagery, to further emphasize the destructiveness of war. The passing bells, prayers, choirs, and candles emphasize the preciousness of human life. Owen may go so far as to suggest that even religion is helpless against such a powerful destructive force as war. This tone is suggested by the fact that prayers and bells are set against a word like "mockery" (5). Just the term "hasty orisons" (4) has a somewhat disrespectful tone. Owen's use of both similes and metaphors further emphasize the meaning of the poem. The first line jolts the reader with the simile that these young people "die as cattle" (1). He implies with this phrase that war causes human beings to treat others as less than human. In line three, the reader can hear the sound imagery of the "stuttering rifles' rapid rattle" (3). The word "anger" in line 2 also emphasizes the destructive hatred of war. "Choirs of wailing shells" is a powerful metaphor in line 7 contrasting the world of war and the world of God.

For the rest of the poem various religious images abound. For example, the word candles would call to mind the church candles, but they also mean the candles lit in rooms where coffins lie. "Holy glimmers of goodbyes" (line 9) combines religious imagery with the idea of death. In the "pallor/pall" half rhyme of line 11, these two words combine in one line to show the seriousness of the situation. Young people are dying in war, and it is tragic. The "flowers" of line 11 are also a double-edged sword. Flowers are given on very happy, momentous occasions, but they are also in abundance at solemn occasions like funerals.

However, the last line in the sonnet remains the most powerful in re-affirming the themes and images of death in this poem. The "dusk is slow" (11) and the "drawing-down of the blinds" (12) signifies the ultimate death.

The use of a traditional form like a sonnet only serves to emphasize the seriousness of the subject. Wilfred Owen masterfully juxtaposes images of war and church in order to emphasize the solemnity of the death these boys will face. He uses metaphor and simile as well as auditory and visual images in order to allow the reader to truly experience what these boys will face in death.

Works Cited.

Owen, Wilfred. Anthem for Doomed Youth.                                                                
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Notes on “Dulce Et Decorum Est”



Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, 

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge, 

Till on the haunting flares2 we turned our backs 

And towards our distant rest3 began to trudge. 

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots 

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind; 

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots4 

Of tired, outstripped5 Five-Nines6 that dropped behind.


Gas!7 Gas! Quick, boys! –  An ecstasy of fumbling, 

Fitting the clumsy helmets8 just in time; 

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling, 

And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime9 . . . 

Dim, through the misty panes10 and thick green light, 

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. 

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, 

He plunges at me, guttering,11 choking, drowning. 


If in some smothering dreams you too could pace 

Behind the wagon that we flung him in, 

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, 

His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin; 

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood 

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, 

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud12 

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, 

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest13 

To children ardent14 for some desperate glory, 

The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est 

Pro patria mori.15

8 October 1917 - March, 1918

1. DULCE ET DECORUM EST - the first words of a Latin saying (taken from an ode by Horace). The words were widely understood and often quoted at the start of the First World War. They mean "It is sweet and right." The full saying ends the poem: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori - it is sweet and right to die for your country. In other words, it is a wonderful and great honour to fight and die for your country 

2 .rockets which were sent up to burn with a brilliant glare to light up men and other targets in the area between the front lines (See illustration, page 118 of Out in the Dark.) 

3. a camp away from the front line where exhausted soldiers might rest for a few days, or longer 

4. the noise made by the shells rushing through the air 

5. outpaced, the soldiers have struggled beyond the reach of these shells which are now falling behind them as they struggle away from the scene of battle 

6. Five-Nines - 5.9 calibre explosive shells 

7. poison gas. From the symptoms it would appear to be chlorine or phosgene gas. The filling of the lungs with fluid had the same effects as when a person drowned 

8. the early name for gas masks 

9. a white chalky substance which can burn live tissue 

10. the glass in the eyepieces of the gas masks 

11. Owen probably meant flickering out like a candle or gurgling like water draining down a gutter, referring to the sounds in the throat of the choking man, or it might be a sound partly like stuttering and partly like gurgling 

12. normally the regurgitated grass that cows chew; here a similar looking material was issuing from the soldier's mouth 

13. high zest - idealistic enthusiasm, keenly believing in the rightness of the idea 

14. keen 

15. see note 1 

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Shell Shock during World War One                        By Professor Joanna Bourke

By the end of World War One the British Army had dealt with 80,000 cases of shell shock, including those of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. Joanna Bourke explores how the army tackled this extreme trauma, and how it was regarded by those back home.

 Soldier with shell shock 

 On 7 July 1916, Arthur Hubbard painfully set pen to paper in an attempt to explain to his mother why he was no longer in France. He had been taken from the battlefields and deposited in the East Suffolk and Ipswich Hospital suffering from 'shell shock'. In his words, his breakdown was related to witnessing 'a terrible sight that I shall never forget as long as I live'. He told his mother:

'We had strict orders not to take prisoners, no matter if wounded my first job was when I had finished cutting some of their wire away, to empty my magazine on 3 Germans that came out of one of their deep dugouts. bleeding badly, and put them out of misery. They cried for mercy, but I had my orders, they had no feeling whatever for us poor chaps... it makes my head jump to think about it.' [Punctuation and syntax as originally written]

'He was buried, dug himself out, and during the subsequent retreat was almost killed by machine gun fire.'

Hubbard had 'gone over the top' at the Battle of the Somme. While he managed to fight as far as the fourth line of trenches, by 3.30pm practically his whole battalion had been wiped out by German artillery. He was buried, dug himself out, and during the subsequent retreat was almost killed by machine gun fire. Within this landscape of horror, he collapsed.


Aerial shot of a battlefield on the Western Front ©

Arthur Hubbard was one of millions of men who suffered psychological trauma as a result of their war experiences. Symptoms ranged from uncontrollable diarrhea to unrelenting anxiety. Soldiers who had bayoneted men in the face developed hysterical tics of their own facial muscles. Stomach cramps seized men who knifed their foes in the abdomen. Snipers lost their sight. Terrifying nightmares of being unable to withdraw bayonets from the enemies' bodies persisted long after the slaughter.

The dreams might occur 'right in the middle of an ordinary conversation' when 'the face of a Boche that I have bayoneted, with its horrible gurgle and grimace, comes sharply into view', an infantry captain complained. An inability to eat or sleep after the slaughter was common. Nightmares did not always occur during the war. World War One soldiers like Rowland Luther did not suffer until after the armistice when (he admitted) he 'cracked up' and found himself unable to eat, deliriously re-living his experiences of combat.

'...everyone had a 'breaking point': weak or strong, courageous or cowardly - war frightened everyone witless...'

These were not exceptional cases. It was clear to everyone that large numbers of combatants could not cope with the strain of warfare. By the end of World War One, the army had dealt with 80,000 cases of 'shell shock'. As early as 1917, it was recognised that war neuroses accounted for one-seventh of all personnel discharged for disabilities from the British Army. Once wounds were excluded, emotional disorders were responsible for one-third of all discharges. Even more worrying was the fact that a higher proportion of officers were suffering in this way. According to one survey published in 1917, while the ratio of officers to men at the front was 1:30, among patients in hospitals specialising in war neuroses, the ratio of officers to men was 1:6. What medical officers quickly realised was that everyone had a 'breaking point': weak or strong, courageous or cowardly - war frightened everyone witless.

A medical officer examining a recruit ©

More difficult, however, was understanding what caused some panic-stricken men to suffer extremes of trauma. In the early years of World War One, shell shock was believed to be the result of a physical injury to the nerves. In other words, shell shock was the result of being buried alive or exposed to heavy bombardment. The term itself had been coined, in 1917, by a medical officer called Charles Myers. But Myers rapidly became unhappy with the term, recognising that many men suffered the symptoms of shell shock without having even been in the front lines. As a consequence, medical officers increasingly began emphasising psychological factors as providing sufficient cause for breakdown. As the president of the British Psycho-Analytic Association, Ernest Jones, explained: war constituted 'an official abrogation of civilised standards' in which men were not only allowed, but encouraged:

'...to indulge in behaviour of a kind that is throughout abhorrent to the civilised mind.... All sorts of previously forbidden and hidden impulses, cruel, sadistic, murderous and so on, are stirred to greater activity, and the old intrapsychical conflicts which, according to Freud, are the essential cause of all neurotic disorders, and which had been dealt with before by means of 'repression' of one side of the conflict are now reinforced, and the person is compelled to deal with them afresh under totally different circumstances.'

'...a soldier who suffered a neurosis had not lost his reason but was labouring under the weight of too much reason...'

Consequently, the 'return to the mental attitude of civilian life' could spark off severe psychological trauma. The authors of one of the standard books on shell shock went so far as to point out that a soldier who suffered a neurosis had not lost his reason but was labouring under the weight of too much reason: his senses were 'functioning with painful efficiency'.

Four-fifths of shell shock cases were never able to return to military duty ©

Nevertheless, how were these men to be cured of their painful afflictions? From the start, the purpose of treatment was to restore the maximum number of men to duty as quickly as possible. During World War One, four-fifths of men who had entered hospital suffering shell shock were never able to return to military duty: it was imperative that such high levels of 'permanent ineffectives' were reduced. However, the shift from regarding breakdown as 'organic' (that is, an injury to the nerves) to viewing it as psychological had inevitable consequences in terms of treatment. If breakdown was a 'paralysis of the nerves', then massage, rest, dietary regimes and electric shock treatment were invoked. If a psychological source was indicated, the 'talking cure', hypnosis, and rest would speed recovery. In all instances, occupational training and the inculcation of 'masculinity' were highly recommended. As the medical superintendent at one military hospital in York put it, although the medical officer must show sympathy, the patient 'must be induced to face his illness in a manly way'.

'...their reputations as soldiers and men had been dealt a severe blow.'

Sympathy was only rarely forthcoming. Sufferers had no choice but to acknowledge that their reputations as soldiers and men had been dealt a severe blow. After a major bombardment or particularly bloody attack, if the combatant had acquitted himself adequately, signs of emotional 'weakness' could be overlooked, but in the midst of the fray, the attitude was much less sympathetic. 'Go 'ide yerself, you bloody little coward!', cursed one Tommy at a frightened soldier. When the shell shocked men returned home, things were not much better. Men arriving at Netley Hospital (for servicemen suffering shell shock) were greeted with silence: people were described as hanging their heads in 'inexplicable shame'. No-one better described the mix of shame and anger experienced by the war-damaged than the poet, Siegfried Sassoon. In October 1917, while he was at Craiglockhart, one of the most famous hospitals for curing officers with war neuroses, he wrote a poem, simply called 'Survivors':

No doubt they'll soon get well; the shock and strain / Have caused their stammering, disconnected talk. / Of course they're 'longing to go out again', - / These boys with old, scared faces, learning to walk. / They'll soon forget their haunted nights; their cowed / Subjection to the ghosts of friends who died, - / Their dreams that drip with murder; and they'll be proud / Of glorious war that shatter'd their pride... / Men who went out to battle, grim and glad; / Children, with eyes that hate you, broken and mad.

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January 22, 1963

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich


New York -- Two or three weeks ago Leonid F. Illyiehev, the Soviet propaganda boss, made a rather plaintive speech to the young writers of Moscow. Please, he said, in effect, there are other subjects besides "the camps" to write about.

Suddenly, in Moscow, it would appear, everyone wants to write about life in the Stalin concentration camps. The reason for this is a rather short, sparsely told, eloquent, explosive, work by Alexander Solzhenitsyn which today reaches the American public in English translation.

Solzhenitsyn is a 44-year-old mathematics teacher in the old Russian town of Ryazan who spent eight years in Stalinís concentration camps. "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" is his first literary work, the simple story of one day in a Soviet concentration camp.

There is hardly a detail in Solzhenitsyn's story which, in itself is new. The cruelty, the falseness of the charges, the animal fight for survival, the debasement, the cynical grafting, the brutalizing, the sentences stretching into infinity (or death), the hunger, the suffering, the cold--all this is familiar.

Changes Perception

But the same might have been said of conditions in Russian prisons before Dostoyevsky wrote his "Notes, from the House of the Dead." The story of political prisoners in Siberia was well known before George Kennan wrote his famous "Siberia and the Exile System" in 1891.

Yet, each of these works changed our perception of the known facts. So it is with Solzhenitsyn's remarkable tale. In the Soviet Union, of course, it has been a sensation. Until the November issue of the literary journal, Novy Mir, appeared with Solzhenitsyn's story, no Soviet writer had tackled this most terrible and characteristic feature of the Stalin era. (It took Premier Khrushchev's personal okay to get the story published.) Small wonder that all 95,000 copies of Novy Mir vanished almost before they hit the newsstands and that they now sell for $10 a copy.

Solzhenitsyn has written no mere propagandistic expose. He has created a small, almost flawless classic employing the eloquence of reticence and understatement in a manner which even the fumbling of hurried translation cannot obscure.

Ivan Denisovich Shukov, his central figure, is a simple peasant. His "crime" was to escape from the Germans who took him prisoner in 1943 and return to his own lines. Had he not said he had been in German hands he would have gotten a medal. By telling the truth he was sentenced to a concentration camp as a "spy." Had he not confessed being a "spy" he would have been shot. Neither he nor his NKVD interrogator had ingenuity enough to figure out what kind of "spying" he was supposed to do.

Now in a prison camp resembling one of the Karanga camps where Solzhenitsyn himself was confined, Ivan strives to keep alive in a milieu-ruled, as an old inmate says, "by the law of the taiga," or as we would put it, the law of the jungle.

Who are the other prisoners? One is a Soviet Navy captain. His misfortune was that a British admiral sent him a Christmas present. One man is a Baptist. His crime? Being a Baptist. A youngster took a pail of milk to some Ukrainian outlaws--and drew a 25-year sentence. In every labor gang of 20 to 30 men there are at least five or six "spies." There is even one "genuine spy" in the camp, a Moldavian who actually worked for the Germans. One man was drummed out of the Red Army as the son of a kulak or rich peasant. Later, the officers who drummed him out were shot in the purge.

Everyone cheats. Everyone steals. But there are rules of the game. Only by observing the rules with skill can a man hope to survive. If he fights back like the Naval captain he'll be thrown into the sub-zero guardhouse for 10 days. If he survives his health is ruined. Not more than a year or two of life will remain.

Surviving Is a Triumph

It is not an easy world for Americans to comprehend. As Ivan muses: "How can you expect a man who's warm to understand a man who's cold?" It is a world in which to live through one more day is an achievement. When Shukov has gone through his day he falls asleep in a glow of contentment. It has been a lucky day. He has not been put into the punishment cells. He has not been sent to the open steppe to work in the 20-below zero wind. He's gotten an extra bowl of mush for supper. He's worked at building a wall and gotten pleasure from it. Heís gotten a hacksaw blade into camp without being caught. Heís bought some good tobacco. And he hasn't gotten sick. And the book closes:

"A day without a dark cloud. Almost a happy day. There were three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days like that in his stretch....

"Three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days.

"The three extra days were for leap years."

This quiet tale has struck a powerful blow against the return of the horrors of the Stalin system. For Solzhenitsyn's words burn like acid.

Of the two translations neither comes close to reproducing the rough vigor of the author's concentration camp slang. Each has been done with too much haste. Each relies on standard four-letter words rather than the author's salty idiom. However, Ralph Parker's version in the Dutton edition is superior to the patchwork thrown together by Max Hayward and Ronald Hingley for Praeger. The most striking blooper of the Hayward- Hingley translation is to put in the mouths of the prisoners the phrase "Comrade Warder." The prisoners were forbidden, as Solzhenitsyn notes, to call the guards "comrade," which is the customary Soviet greeting. They had to address the guards as "Citizen," removing their hats five paces away and keeping it off two paces beyond the guard.

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Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr (Isayevich)

(b. Dec. 11, 1918, Kislovodsk, Russia [U.S.S.R.]), Russian novelist and historian, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for 1970 and was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1974.

Solzhenitsyn was born into a family of Cossack intellectuals and brought up primarily by his mother (his father was killed in an accident before his birth). He attended the University of Rostov-na-Donu, graduating in mathematics, and took correspondence courses in literature at Moscow State University. He fought in World War II, achieving the rank of captain of artillery; in 1945, however, he was arrested for writing a letter in which he criticized Joseph Stalin and spent eight years in prisons and labour camps, after which he spent three more years in enforced exile. Rehabilitated in 1956, he was allowed to settle in Ryazan, in central Russia, where he became a mathematics teacher and began to write.

Encouraged by the loosening of government restraints on cultural life that was a hallmark of the de-Stalinizing policies of the early 1960s, Solzhenitsyn submitted his short novel Odin den iz zhizni Ivana Denisovicha (1962; One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich) to the leading Soviet literary periodical Novy Mir ("New World"). The novel quickly appeared in that journal's pages and met with immediate popularity, Solzhenitsyn becoming an instant celebrity. Ivan Denisovich, based on Solzhenitsyn's own experiences, described a typical day in the life of an inmate of a forced-labour camp during the Stalin era. The impression made on the public by the book's simple, direct language and by the obvious authority with which it treated the daily struggles and material hardships of camp life was magnified by its being one of the first Soviet literary works of the post-Stalin era to directly describe such a life. The book produced a political sensation both abroad and in the Soviet Union, where it inspired a number of other writers to produce accounts of their imprisonment under Stalin's regime.

Solzhenitsyn's period of official favour proved to be short-lived, however. Ideological strictures on cultural activity in the Soviet Union tightened with Nikita Khrushchev's fall from power in 1964, and Solzhenitsyn met first with increasing criticism and then with overt harassment from the authorities when he emerged as an eloquent opponent of repressive government policies. After the publication of a collection of his short stories in 1963, he was denied further official publication of his work, and he resorted to circulating them in the form of samizdat ("self-published") literature--i.e., as illegal literature circulated clandestinely--as well as publishing them abroad.

The following years were marked by the foreign publication of several ambitious novels that secured Solzhenitsyn's international literary reputation. V kruge pervom (1968; The First Circle) was indirectly based on his years spent working in a prison research institute as a mathematician. The book traces the varying responses of scientists at work on research for the secret police as they must decide whether to cooperate with the authorities and thus remain within the research prison or to refuse their services and be thrust back into the brutal conditions of the labour camps. Rakovy korpus (1968; Cancer Ward) was based on Solzhenitsyn's hospitalization and successful treatment for terminally diagnosed cancer during his forced exile in Kazakhstan during the mid-1950s. The main character, like Solzhenitsyn himself, was a recently released inmate of the camps.

In 1970 Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but he declined to go to Stockholm to receive the prize for fear he would not be readmitted to the Soviet Union by the government upon his return. His next novel to be published outside the Soviet Union was Avgust 1914 (1971; August 1914), a historical novel treating Germany's crushing victory over Russia in their initial military engagement of World War I, the Battle of Tannenburg. The novel centred on several characters in the doomed 1st Army of the Russian general A.V. Samsonov and indirectly explored the weaknesses of the tsarist regime that eventually led to its downfall by revolution in 1917.

In December 1973 the first parts of Arkhipelag Gulag (The Gulag Archipelago) were published in Paris after a copy of the manuscript had been seized in the Soviet Union by the KGB. (Gulag is an acronym formed from the official Soviet designation of its system of prisons and labour camps.) The Gulag Archipelago is Solzhenitsyn's attempt to compile a literary-historical record of the vast system of prisons and labour camps that came into being shortly after the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia (1917) and that underwent an enormous expansion during the rule of Stalin (1924-53). Various sections of the work describe the arrest, interrogation, conviction, transportation, and imprisonment of the Gulag's victims as practiced by Soviet authorities over four decades. The work mingles historical exposition and Solzhenitsyn's own autobiographical accounts with the voluminous personal testimony of other inmates that he collected and committed to memory during his imprisonment.

Upon publication of the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn was immediately attacked in the Soviet press. Despite the intense interest in his fate that was shown in the West, he was arrested and charged with treason on Feb. 12, 1974. Solzhenitsyn was exiled from the Soviet Union on the following day, and in December he took possession of his Nobel Prize.

In 1975 a documentary novel, Lenin v Tsyurikhe: glavy (Lenin in Zurich: Chapters), appeared. Subsequently, Solzhenitsyn traveled to the United States, where he eventually settled on a secluded estate in Cavendish, Vt. The second and third volumes of The Gulag Archipelago were published in 1974-75. Solzhenitsyn produced two books of nonfiction in 1980: The Oak and the Calf, which portrayed literary life in the Soviet Union, and the brief The Mortal Danger, which analyzed what he perceived to be the perils of American misconceptions about Russia. In 1983 an extensively expanded and revised version of August 1914 appeared in Russian as the first part of a projected series, Krasnoe koleso (The Red Wheel); other volumes (or uzly ["knots"]) in the series were Oktyabr 1916 ("October 1916"), Mart 1917 ("March 1917"), and Aprel 1917 ("April 1917").

In presenting alternatives to the Soviet regime, Solzhenitsyn tended to reject Western emphases on democracy and individual freedom and instead favoured the formation of a benevolent authoritarian regime that would draw upon the resources of Russia's traditional Christian values. The introduction of glasnost ("openness") in the late 1980s brought renewed access to Solzhenitsyn's work in the Soviet Union. In 1989 the Soviet literary magazine Novy Mir published the first officially approved excerpts from The Gulag Archipelago. Other works were also published, and Solzhenitsyn's Soviet citizenship was officially restored in 1990. He ended his exile and returned to Russia in 1994.

Copyright (c) 1995 Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. All Rights Reserved


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Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn                                                        Autobiography

I was born at Kislovodsk on 11th December, 1918. My father had studied philological subjects at Moscow University, but did not complete his studies, as he enlisted as a volunteer when war broke out in 1914. He became an artillery officer on the German front, fought throughout the war and died in the summer of 1918, six months before I was born. I was brought up by my mother, who worked as a shorthand-typist, in the town of Rostov on the Don, where I spent the whole of my childhood and youth, leaving the grammar school there in 1936. Even as a child, without any prompting from others, I wanted to be a writer and, indeed, I turned out a good deal of the usual juvenilia. In the 1930s, I tried to get my writings published but I could not find anyone willing to accept my manuscripts. I wanted to acquire a literary education, but in Rostov such an education that would suit my wishes was not to be obtained. To move to Moscow was not possible, partly because my mother was alone and in poor health, and partly because of our modest circumstances. I therefore began to study at the Department of Mathematics at Rostov University, where it proved that I had considerable aptitude for mathematics. But although I found it easy to learn this subject, I did not feel that I wished to devote my whole life to it. Nevertheless, it was to play a beneficial role in my destiny later on, and on at least two occasions, it rescued me from death. For I would probably not have survived the eight years in camps if I had not, as a mathematician, been transferred to a so-called sharashia, where I spent four years; and later, during my exile, I was allowed to teach mathematics and physics, which helped to ease my existence and made it possible for me to write. If I had had a literary education it is quite likely that I should not have survived these ordeals but would instead have been subjected to even greater pressures. Later on, it is true, I began to get some literary education as well; this was from 1939 to 1941, during which time, along with university studies in physics and mathematics, I also studied by correspondence at the Institute of History, Philosophy and Literature in Moscow.
             In 1941, a few days before the outbreak of the war, I graduated from the Department of Physics and Mathematics at Rostov University. At the beginning of the war, owing to weak health, I was detailed to serve as a driver of horsedrawn vehicles during the winter of 1941-1942. Later, because of my mathematical knowledge, I was transferred to an artillery school, from which, after a crash course, I passed out in November 1942. Immediately after this I was put in command of an artillery-position-finding company, and in this capacity, served, without a break, right in the front line until I was arrested in February 1945. This happened in East Prussia, a region which is linked with my destiny in a remarkable way. As early as 1937, as a first-year student, I chose to write a descriptive essay on "The Samsonov Disaster" of 1914 in East Prussia and studied material on this; and in 1945 I myself went to this area (at the time of writing, autumn 1970, the book August 1914 has just been completed).
           I was arrested on the grounds of what the censorship had found during the years 1944-45 in my correspondence with a school friend, mainly because of certain disrespectful remarks about Stalin, although we referred to him in disguised terms. As a further basis for the "charge", there were used the drafts of stories and reflections which had been found in my map case. These, however, were not sufficient for a "prosecution", and in July 1945 I was "sentenced" in my absence, in accordance with a procedure then frequently applied, after a resolution by the OSO (the Special Committee of the NKVD), to eight years in a detention camp (at that time this was considered a mild sentence).
            I served the first part of my sentence in several correctional work camps of mixed types (this kind of camp is described in the play, The Tenderfoot and the Tramp). In 1946, as a mathematician, I was transferred to the group of scientific research institutes of the MVD-MOB (Ministry of Internal Affairs, Ministry of State Security). I spent the middle period of my sentence in such "SPECIAL PRISONS" (The First Circle). In 1950 I was sent to the newly established "Special Camps" which were intended only for political prisoners. In such a camp in the town of Ekibastuz in Kazakhstan (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich), I worked as a miner, a bricklayer, and a foundryman. There I contracted a tumour which was operated on, but the condition was not cured (its character was not established until later on).
           One month after I had served the full term of my eight-year sentence, there came, without any new judgement and even without a "resolution from the OSO", an administrative decision to the effect that I was not to be released but EXILED FOR LIFE to Kok-Terek (southern Kazakhstan). This measure was not directed specially against me, but was a very usual procedure at that time. I served this exile from March 1953 (on March 5th, when Stalin's death was made public, I was allowed for the first time to go out without an escort) until June 1956. Here my cancer had developed rapidly, and at the end of 1953, I was very near death. I was unable to eat, I could not sleep and was severely affected by the poisons from the tumour. However, I was able to go to a cancer clinic at Tashkent, where, during 1954, I was cured (The Cancer Ward, Right Hand). During all the years of exile, I taught mathematics and physics in a primary school and during my hard and lonely existence I wrote prose in secret (in the camp I could only write down poetry from memory). I managed, however, to keep what I had written, and to take it with me to the European part of the country, where, in the same way, I continued, as far as the outer world was concerned, to occupy myself with teaching and, in secret, to devote myself to writing, at first in the Vladimir district (Matryona's Farm) and afterwards in Ryazan.
          During all the years until 1961, not only was I convinced that I should never see a single line of mine in print in my lifetime, but, also, I scarcely dared allow any of my close acquaintances to read anything I had written because I feared that this would become known. Finally, at the age of 42, this secret authorship began to wear me down. The most difficult thing of all to bear was that I could not get my works judged by people with literary training. In 1961, after the 22nd Congress of the U.S.S.R. Communist Party and Tvardovsky's speech at this, I decided to emerge and to offer One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
           Such an emergence seemed, then, to me, and not without reason, to be very risky because it might lead to the loss of my manuscripts, and to my own destruction. But, on that occasion, things turned out successfully, and after protracted efforts, A.T. Tvardovsky was able to print my novel one year later. The printing of my work was, however, stopped almost immediately and the authorities stopped both my plays and (in 1964) the novel, The First Circle, which, in 1965, was seized together with my papers from the past years. During these months it seemed to me that I had committed an unpardonable mistake by revealing my work prematurely and that because of this I should not be able to carry it to a conclusion.
           It is almost always impossible to evaluate at the time events which you have already experienced, and to understand their meaning with the guidance of their effects. All the more unpredictable and surprising to us will be the course of future events.

From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1968-1980, Editor-in-Charge Tore Frängsmyr, Editor Sture Allén, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1993

This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and first published in the book series Les Prix Nobel. It was later edited and republished in Nobel Lectures. To cite this document, always state the source as shown above.

 Alexandr Solzhenitsyn died on 3 August, 2008.


"Alexandr Solzhenitsyn - Autobiography". Nobelprize.org. 20 Jul 2010



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Essay Topics and Critical Commentary   *      Essay Topics

Identify the most significant symbol in the novel and justify your choice.

State one possible theme of the novel, and support your position.

Give your opinion on why One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch is considered an important novel in the canon of world literature, and why it was seminal in the nomination of Solzhenitsyn as a Nobel Prize winner.

Describe how the setting complements the primary themes of the novel.

Describe the Solzhenitsyn hero.

Compare and Contrast One Day with another novel you've read in this class.

Instructor's Recommendation: I would like to see an essay on setting, and how it is crucial to the story. How does Solzhenitsyn describe the setting? What are the elements of the setting that contribute to the novel? Are there elements of the setting that are odd, or don't really fit the novel, such as the sick room--a place that exists to give care. This is an odd segment of setting in a prisoner camp, yet Solzhenitsyn manages to integrate the sick room into the same type of despairing, hopeless, sterile setting as other parts of the camp. Comment on how he does this.

Critical Commentary*

Introduction And Background

"For the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions

of Russian literature." - From the Nobel Prize Citation for Alexander

Solzhenitsyn, October 8, 1970.

 In mid-century - 1962 to be exact - a bright new talent appeared with stunning suddenness on the literary horizon. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, together with his epoch-making work, One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich, flared up like a supernova in the Eastern skies and incandesced the Western skies as well. Today Solzhenitsyn remains the most impressive figure in world literature of the latter half of the 20th century. 

Before One Day was throttled in the USSR, it had become an overnight sensation. The 100,000 copies of Novy Mir (New World) carrying the novella sold out in November 1962 in a matter of hours; so did the almost 1 million copies of immediate second and third printings. But by 1963, not only Solzhenitsyn, who had earlier been a protégé of the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, but Khrushchev himself fell under a cloud as a new wave of political and cultural Reactionism again loomed in the Soviet Union. By the end of 1964, the editor of Novy Mir (Tvardovsky), Khrushchev, Solzhenitsyn, and a number of other liberal elements or influences in Soviet culture became the targets of a widening campaign to restore Stalinist orthodoxy and a rigid party line to the arts.

 Nineteen sixty-two, debut year for One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich and its author, was an important episode in the most unusual, if brief, epoch in recent Soviet history. This was the time-1961-1962-of crisscrossing, incongruous developments, both in domestic as well as foreign policy.  

Condemnation Of Stalinism  

On the Soviet home scene, the De-Stalinization Campaign reached a crescendo. Stalin's embalmed body, which lay next to Lenin's, was abruptly removed from the Lenin Mausoleum on the party's orders and reinterred in a humble plot at the foot of the Kremlin Wall. This action became a potent symbol of the widening condemnation of Stalin's draconic policies with respect to other party comrades, the arts, and the population at large. In the arts, the liberals now sought to make new inroads, to come out of the closet and with them, their manuscripts out of desk drawers. This process was illustrated by the liberal poets  Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Andrei Voznesensky, and other writers acquiring new posts in writers' unions and on editorial boards of journals. "The younger generation of Russians," Yevtushenko announced confidently during a lecture tour to England in May 1962, "are increasingly beginning to feel themselves masters in their own country." The liberal journal Yunost' (Youth) published Vasily Aksenov's  trailblazing story A Ticket to the Stars while a heterodoxical work also published in Yunost's pages (each issue of which sold like hot pirozhkis) was that a youthful rebellion of sorts was underway in the USSR, that younger people were becoming outspokenly critical of the values and policies identified with the older, Stalinist generation.  

Such heretical works and attitudes by no means were left unchallenged by the conservatives and  hardliners attached to the regime. In fact, 1962 and 1963 represented the beginnings of an effort, culminating in the mid-1970s, to clamp down on the liberal tendencies that were in such evidence during these years and upon whose crests Solzhenitsyn and One Day rode to prominence. One of the signs that a crackdown was imminent was barely concealed (by Aesopian language) in Yevtushenko's sensational poem published during the Cuban Missile Crisis week in October 1962 entitled, "The Heirs of Stalin." In this short but trenchant political poem (which, incidentally, was printed in the party daily Pravda, edited at the time by Khrushchev allies), Yevtushenko warned against the possible recrudescence of Stalinism in his country. "A telephone line is installed [in Stalin's coffin]," he wrote. "Stalin has not given up," his "telephone line" runs all the way to Communist reactionaries in Tirana (Albania), Peking, and to the Kremlin. The poem concludes: "As long as Stalin's heirs exist on earth/It will seem to me/That Stalin is still in the Mausoleum."  

Yevtushenko's warning of a political rollback began to take on concrete meaning at the end of 1962, after publication of One Day, and especially in the spring of 1963. First came the Cuban Missile Crisis, or what came to be called for the Soviets the "Cuban fiasco." Soviet merchantmen bound for Havana with lethal missiles lashed to their decks were turned back in humiliating U-shaped wakes-a retreat forced on the Russians by a U.S. naval blockade ordered from the White House by President John F. Kennedy. Kremlin watchers immediately detected slippage in Khrushchev's standing in the Moscow leadership; Soviet loss-of-face became obvious to hundreds of millions of newspaper readers throughout the world.   

The second straw-that-broke-Nikita's-back was the embarrassing exposure found in the notorious Penkovsky Papers. Col. Oleg Penkovsky had been a deputy chief of a department in the hush-hush State Committee for Coordinating Scientific Research and probably, too, a member of Soviet military intelligence. In October 1962 he was arrested in Moscow for having acted as a double agent, for the USSR but also for both the U.S. and U.K. intelligence services. Needless to say, he was executed, in somewhere like the basement of Lubyanka prison, but not without leaving behind in the West his papers, which then became available to Western media. The Penkovsky Papers told a story of slack discipline among Soviet intelligence agents (not to mention the treason of Penkovsky himself), revealed the names of secret agents and their means of conducting espionage in the West, and seemed to illustrate a general laxity which, to the conservatives, had been brought on by Khrushchev-endorsed policies of liberalization.  

Third, there was the poor showing of the Soviet economy, according to the fourth-quarter 1962 economic report; the crucial sector of agriculture was especially shortfallen.  

Encouraged by these and other turns of events as the year 1963 opened, the Kremlin hardliners, joined by the culture hawks, were loaded for bear. Khrushchev, his liberal-minded son-in-law (Adzhubei), and a whole flock of liberal-lining authors and critics came under the sights of the reactionaries. The list of dramatis personae in this unfolding drama to unseat the First Secretary and to turn back the clock on the Soviet cultural scene is too long to recount here; in any case, it is the results that speak just as loud as the step-by-step causal chain which brought them about.

Solzhenitsyn Attacked  

The blips of reaction were clearly manifest at the turn of the year 1962. The Soviet super-patriotic, party-lining author and critic, Nikolai Gribachev, aimed a stinging attack against Yevtushenko in the pages of Pravda in January 1963. Ilya Ehrenburg, one of the more respected of old generation liberals, author of the pace-setting novel of 1953, ironically titled The Thaw, was raked over the coals in the government daily Izvestiya. In these and other party-initiated criticisms, the message was that the cultural expression of de-Stalinization must be halted. Moreover, there was the implication that de-Stalinization as a whole, not only in the arts, should be discontinued, liberal journals - Yunost' and Novy Mir particularly - came under sharp attack. One Lydia Fomenko attacked both Solzhenitsyn and the magazine that had carried One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (for showing a lack of "philosophical perspective"); socialism, she wrote, was built in the Soviet Union, and along with it the various Stalinist institutions, quite aside from and despite the fact of Stalin's "personal short-comings" (!). It was profoundly mistaken, she maintained, to identify socialism with Stalin, as Solzhenitsyn had done implicitly in One Day.  

Nikita Khrushchev himself felt obliged to join the swelling chorus of straight-laced neo-Stalinists on the cultural front. Whether he was under duress or not, the First Secretary took out after Ehrenburg and Yevtushenko, and Viktor Nekrasov, all of whose modest literary heresies he had apparently once tolerated, perhaps even encouraged, to further his own political ends. Now Khrushchev talked the language of the conservatives: "Our Soviet youth," the Leader reminded his audience at a special Kremlin conference of 600 writers, artists, and intellectuals in March 1963, "has been brought up by our party; it follows our party; and it sees in it its educator and leader." Harangued on the rostrum by the party apparatchik Leonid Ilyichev and other spokesmen for a hard line on the arts, this conference heard one orthodox-minded speaker after another defend the older generation against the younger, while at the same time each denied that any "fathers-and-sons" confrontation or minor generation gap could possibly exist under Soviet conditions. Some, including Khrushchev, held up the example of the author Mikhail Sholokhov, famous for his great novel Quiet Flows the Don (but some, Solzhenitsyn for one, question the authenticity of his authorship of the work) but for precious little else. They pitted this author against the other of his generation, Ehrenburg, in a subtle but nonetheless obvious display of anti-Semitism to prove that the one (Sholokhov) was a genuine revolutionist and Communist while the other (Ehrenburg) was a sham, a coward, even a "silent" collaborator in the foul deeds of Stalin.  

The next step - and this, too, was crucial for the careers of One Day and its author - was the start of a gradual but steady Rehabilitation Of Stalin. Just as Khrushchev had used the de-Stalinization campaign to embarrass the old Stalinist rivals in his leadership, even to purge some of them as he did in 1957, likewise and anti-Khrushchev forces pushed for Stalin's rehabilitation precisely for the purpose of sandbagging the First Secretary. Some of the most denunciatory of anti-Stalin spokesmen of the recent past (Leonid Brezhnev among them) one-by-one joined the anti-Khrushchev alliance. This was the group of  conservatives, a virtual crypto-cabinet, who not only opposed any continuance or broadening of the anti-Stalin campaign, but who also wished to overturn a number of Khrushchev domestic and foreign policies. The grounds were that these policies were ill-advised, too liberal, or too "hare-brained," as the Central Committee's indictment against Khrushchev put it in October 1964 - that is when the First Secretary was finally replaced by a team of neo-Stalinists headed by Brezhnev, Alexei Kosygin, and Mikhail Suslov.  

For One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, 1963-1964 was a turning point. In fact, the pressure to rehabilitate Stalin and contain de-Stalinization had an obvious connection with the nomination of One Day - and for its failure to win - the Lenin Prize. During the autumn of 1963 and into 1964, literati in Russia discussed the possibility of Solzhenitsyn's receiving the prize for 1964. The Communist youth daily, Komsomolskaya Pravda, went so far as to publish a letter to the editor by a reader who recommended that One Day get the Lenin Prize for literature. (Several works are customarily nominated for the prize, the final decision being made by an "illustrious" body of judges who are under strong pressure from the party.) The same newspaper, answering as it were the reader's letter, criticized the behavior of the novella's main character, the prisoner, Ivan Shukhov, for being "distasteful." Another Solzhenitsyn writing which figured in the pre-prize discussion was Matryona's Place, a story published in Novy Mir shortly after One Day. In the discussion, the "pros" seemed outnumbered, at least by their connections, by the "cons" on the matter of whether Solzhenitsyn should receive the prize. Finally, in February 1964 a joint meeting of the secretariats (which are customarily saturated with partiytsi [party-liners]) of the RSFSR and Moscow writers' organizations determined that One Day "cannot be placed among the outstanding works which are worthy of the Lenin Prize." A bitterly ironic remark began to circulate around Moscow after this, to many people, shocking rejection of One Day: "Tell me what you think of One Day and I will proceed to tell you just who you are."

True Literature? 

Solzhenitsyn's turning to history has extremely important consequences for his total literary heritage. As he himself has said, "Literature that is not the very breath of contemporary society does not deserve the name of literature." To be true literature, "the pain and fears of society must be held before it, society must be warned against the moral and social dangers which threaten it."  

History to Solzhenitsyn, as to Leo Tolstoy, is the theater and the arena in which the abominations as well as the glories of human behavior are revealed at their most powerful and on the grandest scale. This is not to say that Solzhenitsyn actually "writes history," meaning by that a formal history text. Rather, his novel August 1914 is a vehicle for the telling the larger story of the human condition. As in One Day, characters are minutely inspected in order best to understand the historical environment in which they participate as well as being affected by it. In other words, history at its present juncture provides Solzhenitsyn with concrete, "living" referents or the actual background against which the moral fiber of realistically depicted characters are not only revealed but above all tested and tempered. As in the later work, Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn's historical novel about Leninist-Stalinist terror and the labor-camp system, so in August 1914 events do not simply "happen," as though they were products of the action of Fate. It is precisely over the issue of Why Events Happen that Solzhenitsyn parts company with the great Russian writer, Tolstoy, who himself used history (War and Peace) as a means of dissecting the human spirit and human character.  

For Solzhenitsyn, the tragedies of individual men and women-say, as found in forced labor camps-are not decreed by Fate or by heaven. These individual tragedies are seen as parts, packets, or "knots" (uzly, Solzhenitsyn's term) of a larger Tragedy, capital T. People are often seen as victims of institutionalized distortions of humanity-whether such institutions be Lenin's revolutionary tribunals, Leninist-Stalinist censorship, or the Gulag Archipelago. But note that the institutions themselves which debase the victims are not the inexorable result of "historical necessity." Such institutions are not only avoidable, but the author strongly implies, eradicable, even though they have become deeply entrenched as, for example, in Soviet society.  

Not that Solzhenitsyn is a "revolutionary," in the usual sense of that word. Indeed, he could never dedicate himself to revolution, implying as it does the unleashing of violence and of "vranyo" (Russian for deceitful ballyhoo and propaganda), of paying servile homage to cults, either of leaders, ideologies, or of the State and the Party. Such particular "Causes" or "The Cause" frequently disappoint and disillusion their followers (as happened on a small scale as described by John Simon Kunen in The Strawberry Statement, for example), despite their pious-sounding goals and alleged "self-transcending devotion."  

Solzhenitsyn is tuned in on a more distant, yet more proximate drummer, his Muse. As an artist, his metier is the calling up of vivid images, even when he is retelling the history of twentieth-century Russia.  At all times it is the stark, unadorned reality of the world, and of the people living in it, which interest Solzhenitsyn. But as he tells of the results of the foregoing events, of the decisions and personalities (including Tsar Nicholas I, his ministers and generals, Lenin, Stalin, et al.) participating in history, Solzhenitsyn also seeks out the causes (causation) which have brought about the historical consequences. Most of the major actions occurring in history, as Solzhenitsyn views it, are due to conscious human initiation motivated by consciously defined purposes.

In short, Solzhenitsyn's Sense Of Tragedy is distinctly non-classical as well as non-Tolstoyan. Heroic characters are not "tragically-flawed" or innocent victims of unconscious or unknowable forces or enigmas. Solzhenitsyn's is faintly Manichaean viewpoint, in which the world and the historical terrain are populated with persons-whether at the grassroots or at the very summit of power-who appear to be intrinsically, almost genetically, either evil or on the other hand, good. For Solzhenitsyn, there are demonic natures and humanitarian natures. To him, the evil-doers may outnumber the benefactors of mankind, at least in contemporary political and social life, but they do not ultimately defeat them. This view is not only non-classical, it is also non-nineteenth century. In the preceding century, more times than not, history was viewed, whether by trained historians or by the writers of fiction and philosophy, as a "process." It could be studied "scientifically" as though it were an environment resembling the Galapagos Islands where Darwin studied natural processes. Indeed, to the nineteenth-century historian, history was often viewed as a law-bound evolution. Terms such as "process," "historicism," "determinism," "impersonal forces," "inevitability," etc., were employed to give scientific-better, scientistic-credence to the telling of history. In What is History? Edward Hallett Carr has called this tendency in historiography a misunderstanding of the nature of science (whether natural science or social science), the failure to appreciate that historians advance "progressively from one fragmentary hypothesis to another," not by means of dogmatic insistence upon "historical law" and "ultimate truth."  

So, for Solzhenitsyn, man's Tragedy does not consist in his being ground under by an historical juggernaut, a dumb force guided by inexorable historical laws, impersonal forces, economic determinism, and so forth. Instead, man makes his own history. Ideologies, religions, policies do help shape the lines along which history will be made, but above all for Solzhenitsyn, it is men who make history. It is they who can be blamed. So can the makers of ideologies be blamed for the postulates they develop and the consequences which result from them. "Who is to blame?" the author of Gulag Archipelago asks in the chapter entitled, "The Law Becomes a Man." He answers, with bitter irony: "Well, of course, it obviously could never be the Over-All Leadership!"

Literary Techniques  

Alexander Solzhenitsyn's style of writing is economical and unornamental. This is particularly true of One Day. This would seemingly cause little difficulty in translating One Day were it not for the great amount of prison jargon contained in the dialogues and discussion of life in the camp.  

The author's motto might well be, "wie es eigentlich gewesen," or "tell it like it is." In believing as he does in honest realism and not the propaganda slogan of "socialist realism," Solzhenitsyn wishes to render the real-life situations he describes in so many of his writings-but especially in One Day-in real-life language. The author did not have to use any glossaries of prison argot, although the translator must; Solzhenitsyn simply drew on his own 8-years' experience in corrective labor camps.  

Artistic Use Of Blunt Language  

Many "unprintable" Russian words turn up in One Day, as it was first published in Novy Mir. Words like khub kren, yebat', govno and der'mo, khui, pizda, etc., would make Beelzebub himself blush, but since they are part of a zek's vocabulary, they appear in the novella. In the half-dozen extant English translations of the work, these words are rendered with the frankness of a Henry Miller novel. In Solzhenitsyn's case, the reader gets the impression that far from wishing to be shocking or sensational, the author has used these obscenities to show how debased humans can become. In any case, most of the smutty language comes out of the mouths of the camp authorities. This undoubtedly is the author's way of illustrating the source of the debasement, debasement not only of language but of human beings.

In a brilliantly written essay, L. Rzhevsky notes how the blunt language lends an "immediacy and sincerity of tone" to the story (in Tvorets i Podvig: Ocherki po Tvorchestvu Aleksandra Solzhenitsyna [The Artist and His Accomplishments: Notes on the Writings of Alexander Solzhenitsyn], Possev-Verlag, Frankfurt/Main). "The simplicity and credibility of the story" are enhanced by this device, whether the scene be in the barracks, at the construction site, or during the friskings and body counts. Professor Christopher Moody speaks in his book (see Bibliography) of the author's own familiarity with Russian peasant life; he has learned how to convey the "idiom of the common people." Solzhenitsyn studied philological texts (such as Dal's famous dictionary) to verify expressions that he heard, and he took copious notes, as Dostoyevsky had done before him, as found in Dostoyevsky's Diary of a Writer. Some of Solzhenitsyn's proverbs appear to be lifted from Dal. Moody cites and proverb found in One Day, "How can you expect a man who is warm to understand a man who is cold" (from the infirmary scene where Shukhov is commenting about Kolya upon leaving the hospital). But the Dal original renders it, "A man who is satisfied cannot understand one who is hungry." So in these and other cases, Solzhenitsyn did not reproduce Dal but only adapted Dal to his own purposes. Moody notes also Solzhenitsyn's folk-tale (skaz) flavor. He cites the "stitch-stitch-stitch" line when Shukhov is sewing into his mattress the remaining half of a piece of bread; one might also mention the top-top, skrip-skrip onomatopoeia, which is Russian folk speech.  

Moody also notes how Solzhenitsyn's descriptions do not retard the pace of One Day. The story's tempo is not slowed down, "nor does the rhythm become monotonous." The wealth of detail is combined with the lively pace of narration in which broken phrases, a wealth of emotionally-colored interrogatory and exclamatory figures, expressive parenthetical words and phrases, ellipses and unusual word order are used to best advantage.  

"Skaz" Story-Telling  

As to the folk-tale manner of One Day, Professor Moody and others note how Solzhenitsyn fits into the Russian tradition of Pilniak, Zamyatin, and Babel, not to mention prerevolutionary writers like Leskov and Gogol. In the skaz, the story-teller, or narrator, is one the same level as the main characters in the story. He think their thoughts and uses their language. The skaz strategy for telling the story permits the author to tailor in a great deal of "local color," to lend the story an eye-witness flavor through the making of astute, sometimes humorous and sardonic observations or commentaries. The narration in One Day permits the reader along with the author vicariously to dart in and out of the situations or conversations, as if he were there, both participating as well as describing goings-on. One Day's narration is enhanced by the fact that the language is at times simple and slangy and full of zek argot. The "darting-in-and-out" technique is accomplished by Solzhenitsyn without establishing any clear dividing line between Shukhov's speaking and the author's speaking. Moody notes that the voices "interchange so imperceptibly that the reader is often uncertain which is speaking." At times it will necessitate extreme care on the part of the reader to disentangle an unspoken monologue of Shukhov from an exterior observation made by the author through the unseen narrator, who is in the third person.  

Moreover, the Shukhov himself is speaking, in a dialogue for example, it is sometimes difficult to know whether he is speaking to us, the readers, or to another character in the dialogue. At this juncture, the author, via the narrator, may step in to wrap up a scene with a comment or observation.  

In brief, the author has employed a number of techniques to achieve his overall strategy in One Day. Above all, he wants to tell us the truth in the manner in which we are generally acquainted with raw truth: as a blunt, lopsided thing which we have no other choice but to accept. Avoiding as he does  rnamentation or lengthy sentences and description (in the Dickensian or Dostoyevskian manner), Solzhenitsyn  accomplishes a stoic austerity which somehow suits the equally stark scenes, lean figures, and cleanshaven heads of the zeks etched against the bleak white background of the Siberian camp.


Schelle, David, ed. "Name of specific page here." Nobel Novelists Online. Delta County Schools, 1998

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Quotes from Joseph Stalin


A sincere diplomat is like dry water or wooden iron.

Death is the solution to all problems. No man - no problem.

Death solves all problems - no man, no problem.

Education is a weapon whose effects depend on who holds it in his hands and at whom it is aimed.

Everyone imposes his own system as far as his army can reach.

Gaiety is the most outstanding feature of the Soviet Union.

Gratitude is a sickness suffered by dogs.

History shows that there are no invincible armies.

I believe in one thing only, the power of human will.

I trust no one, not even myself.

Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas.

If any foreign minister begins to defend to the death a "peace conference," you can be sure his government has already placed its orders for new battleships and airplanes.

If the opposition disarms, well and good. If it refuses to disarm, we shall disarm it ourselves.

In the Soviet army it takes more courage to retreat than advance.

It is enough that the people know there was an election. The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything.

Mankind is divided into rich and poor, into property owners and exploited; and to abstract oneself from this fundamental division; and from the antagonism between poor and rich means abstracting oneself from fundamental facts.

One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.

Print is the sharpest and the strongest weapon of our party.

The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.

The only real power comes out of a long rifle.

The people who cast the votes don't decide an election, the people who count the votes do.

The Pope? How many divisions has he got?

The writer is the engineer of the human soul.

We don't let them have ideas. Why would we let them have guns?

When we hang the capitalists they will sell us the rope we use.

You cannot make a revolution with silk gloves
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A Brief Chronology of Chaucer's Life and Times

 1300 Dante's Divine Comedy.

1300 Birth of Guillaume de Machaut, French musician and poet (died 1377).

1304 Birth of
Francis Petrarch (died 1374).

1313 Birth of
Giovanni Boccaccio (died 1375).

1321 Death of
Dante Alighieri (b.1265).

1330 Birth of
John Gower (died 1408).

1335 Boccaccio's Filostrato (source of Troilus).

1336-38 Boccaccio's
Filocolo (possible source of The Franklin's Tale).

1337 Hundred Years War begins (ends 1453).

1339 Boccaccio begins Il Teseida delle Nozze d'Emilia (source of The Knight's Tale).

1340-45 Birth of Chaucer.

1346 Birth of Eustache Deschamps, French poet (died c. 1406).

1346 English victory at Crecy; see Jean Froissart, on the
Hundred Years War (1337-1453).

1348-50 The Black Death; see the chilling description of the Plague in
Boccaccio's Decameron, the introduction to the First Day.

1349-51 Boccaccio's Decameron.

1356 English victory at Poitiers; see Jean Froissart, on the
Hundred Years War (1337-1453).

1357 Chaucer a page in the household of the Countess of Ulster.

1359-60 Chaucer serves in the
war in France.

1360 Chaucer, captured by the French, is
ransomed (for 16 pounds).

1360 Peace with France, Treaty of Bretigny (lull in Hundred Years War; resumes in 1369).

1361-62 Severe recurrence of the Plague.

1360's Langland's
Piers Plowman (The "A text").

1361-67 Jean Froissart, French poet and chronicler (c. 1337-1404) serves in the household of Queen Phillippa.

1366 Chaucer marries Philippa Roet, a lady-in-waiting in the Queen's household.

1366 Chaucer travels to Spain.

1366 Death of John Chaucer, Chaucer's father.

1367 Birth of Chaucer's son, Thomas.

1367 Chaucer serves as a
"valettus" and later as a squire in the court of Edward III; granted a payment of 20 marks per annum for life.

1368 Chaucer travels to the continent (France probably) on "the King's service."

1368 Birth of Thomas Hoccleve (died 1450), who wrote poems as a "disciple" of Chaucer.

1368-72 Chaucer writes "Fragment A" of the Romaunt of the Rose, The Book of the Duchess, probably a good many lyrics in French and English, now lost, and such lyrics as The Complaint unto Pity and The Complaint to His Lady.

1369 Chaucer serves with John of Gaunt's army in France.

1370 Birth of
John Lydgate, admirer and imitator of Chaucer (died 1450).

1370 Chaucer again serves with the army in France.

1372 Chaucer's wife Philippa in the household of John of Gaunt's wife.

1372 Chaucer travels to Italy (Genoa and Florence) on a diplomatic mission.

1374 Death of Petrarch.

1374 Chaucer granted a gallon pitcher of wine daily for life.

1374 Chaucer is appointed controller of the customs; granted a
lease on a dwelling over Aldgate.

1375 Death of Boccaccio.

1375 Chaucer and Otho de Graunson (French knight and poet on whose poems Chaucer drew for his "Complaint of Venus") both receive grants from John of Gaunt.

1376-77 Several trips to France, negotiating for peace and the marriage of Richard.

1377 Edward III died; Richard II becomes king.

1377 Pope Gregory XI condemns doctrines of
John Wycliffe (1335/38-1384); Lollard movement grows.

1378 The "Great Schism" -- rival Popes in Rome (Urban) and Avignon (Clement); See
Deliberations of the University of Paris. The schism ends 1409.

1378 Chaucer travels to Italy (Milan) on diplomatic mission.

1378 John Gower and Richard Forester have Chaucer's power of attorney while he travels abroad.

Late 1370's Chaucer writes Saint Cecelia (possibly later); The House of Fame, Anelida and Arcite.

Cecily Chaumpaigne signs a document, releasing Chaucer from all actions in the case of my rape ("de raptu meo").

1380 Birth of Chaucer's second son, Lewis.

1380 Chaucer writes The Parliament of Fowls.

1381 The Peasants' Revolt; see the accounts in
Gray's Scalacronica and the